EU Referendum: on HE, the benefits of remaining in the union are clear

Sir David Greenaway is ‘peddling self-interest’ when he says the UK’s universities are better off in the EU, but he believes the facts back him up, too

June 23, 2016
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Once upon a time, I was a jobbing economist; among other things, I worked on the European Union.

As long ago as 1996, I wrote about what a bad idea it would be for the UK to join the eurozone. I have also worked on the positive impact of the EU on inward investment to the UK. I think I understand the economic arguments being made by both the Remain and Leave camps.

But I am not going to comment too much on the economic arguments, for two reasons: first, it all depends on the assumptions we make about what trading arrangements will prevail should we exit. I can professionally assess the assumptions that underpin opposing arguments. But, and this is my second reason: I would not wish to be perceived as trying to influence how students and staff vote on the basis of assumptions I make about life outside the EU.

However, when it comes to the narrower issue of higher education, commenting on the impact of Remain versus Brexit is more straightforward. We know a great deal about the impact of the EU on higher education. So I am more comfortable on this specific issue. Indeed, I feel I have some responsibility to say something about it.

But I should also say that I do so in a personal capacity and not formally on behalf of the University of Nottingham; and I fully understand that even if I argue that EU membership brings net benefits to UK higher education (which I will) there are many more considerations others will wish to bring into play.

There are lots of “singles” in the European Union: for example, the single currency, which is, in my view, unsustainable; and the single European market, which works well. For some purposes, there is also a single European education area, which, from my perspective, works very well indeed.

Let’s start with some general points. We live in a highly globalised world, and that brings many benefits, including to higher education. Greater movement of ideas and people across borders is to be welcomed. Exposing students to new cultures, new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking not only enriches personal development, it enhances employability.

The number of students studying outside their country of domicile has more than doubled to 4 million in about a generation, for lots of reasons. One is mobility schemes that just make it easier. Erasmus programmes have done that, and right now our university has close to 500 students benefiting from this – the most of any UK institution.

Of course, were we outside the EU, we might find other ways of giving these 500 students a mobility opportunity, but it would require new vehicles, and new funding sources. We want our nation’s young people to have these experiences – to expand their cultural horizons, but also because such experiences support them in the labour market – specifically, students who did an Erasmus placement have been shown to be 50 per cent less likely to experience long-term unemployment.

Our university community is significantly enriched by the 2,200 EU students living and learning at Nottingham. Additionally, according to a recent report, students from the EU studying in our region’s universities generated £143 million annually for the East Midlands economy. While no one can be entirely sure what impact the outcome of the referendum will have on the number of EU students studying in the UK, it is entirely reasonable to emphasise the significant contribution they make to our societies.

Talent development is one strand of our core business; the other is research and knowledge exchange (RKE). In my 40-plus years in higher education, I have not met many academics who think that international cooperation and collaboration is not good for RKE.

We have many international platforms and collaborations. In general, to be effective, they need to be resourced. The EU has invested in this at scale; through its Framework Programmes; Horizon 2020; the European Research Council; Knowledge and Innovation Networks (and many other schemes). For our university, this has amounted to funding of £44 million since 2012-13 – and supports about 15 per cent of our annual research grants. For the UK as a whole, it represents £687 million of research income annually – and is an area where our excellence as a sector means that we do disproportionately well compared with other nations.

I accept that ideas are no respecter of borders, and if outside the EU, British academics would find ways of communicating and collaborating; it would be foolish to suggest otherwise. However, I would not be optimistic about that being as well funded as at present. It would be naive to assume that any rebate benefit would be spent on universities rather than schools, healthcare or social services.

So, if the issue were only about exit and higher education, there is no argument; we would be worse off, and not just marginally so. And for a sector that adds so much to economic vitality and social progress, that is a big deal.

Of course, I could be dismissed as just peddling self-interest.

However, on this I must plead guilty. As the leader of one of the UK’s top universities, I would be failing in my duty if I was silent on the (almost certain) harmful consequences of exit for our universities in general, and research-intensive universities in particular.

Sir David Greenaway is vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham. This post originally featured on his university blog.

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