Even if Brexit means less funding for universities, we should still vote leave

Blog: James Tooley believes the UK academy would be better off outside the European Union

June 2, 2016
European Union (EU) flag missing star (Brexit)

There have been many headlines recently about how leaving the EU would “damage” British universities, and even be a disaster for them. I completely disagree, and I find the reasoning of my pro-EU colleagues curious at best.

In the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, more than 200 leading academics from the University of Cambridge signed a letter saying they won’t be able to collaborate with “academic centres in America and Asia” if we leave the EU. I’m baffled by the logic here. Similarly, Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, writes “Leaving would be a disaster…the most successful knowledge economy is where people publish together with people in other countries. EU membership makes that immeasurably easier.”

At most it makes things easier for the 27 other countries in the EU. But it makes not a jot of difference to collaboration with the remaining 170 or so countries in the UN, including some rather important ones such as the US, India and China.

In fact, why it would even make a difference to others in the EU? If you’re a worthy scholar, others will want to publish with you whether or not you belong to the same political block. This reason is parallel to the scaremongering tactic from those opposed to Brexit, which says we can trade only with countries with which we have trade agreements; it’s simply not true about trade, and the parallel argument would not be true about academic collaboration either.

Second, there is the issue of money. For the academics from Cambridge quoted in the Daily Telegraph, this is their leading focus. Like all self-interested elites, it is threats to their own funding at Cambridge that is of highest concern.

It’s true that Cambridge may eventually lose a minority – around a quarter – of its total research funding if we left the EU. To suggest that this can’t be made up from other sources (including from our own government, once funds from Brussels are returned) shows a distinct lack of imagination. Cambridge is the top performing British university with regard to endowments; even so, its endowments are only a quarter of Harvard University’s, so there is plenty of room for increase.

With relief from the bureaucratic process of EU grant applications, there should be time enough to pursue other possibilities.

In general, if we leave the EU, British universities will lose only a tiny 2.6 per cent of total income, and 16 per cent of total research income. Perhaps this is better put in a different way: if we leave the EU, our universities will still have 97.4 per cent of their total income, and 84 per cent of their research income.

Just as with Cambridge, these small proportions can readily be made up from elsewhere. Moreover, not all our universities in any case will lose funding. It’s difficult to get precise figures on this, not least because of the extent of collaborative research, but the Russell Group received around three-quarters of the more prestigious EU research grants.

But talking about funding in the absence of any context makes me very uneasy. Are my academic colleagues really so mercenary to think that money is the value we most need to take into account in discussions of leaving the EU?

To me, this would be rather like people advising little Estonia in 1991 not to vote to leave the USSR because it might lead to loss of funding. But just as there were higher values to take into account then, so there are higher values to take into account now.

In fact, they are the same values, of freedom, democracy, accountability and legitimacy of government. I want to Brexit because I want self-government. I want those who govern us to be accountable to us, and for us to be able to get rid of them if we feel they are not doing the right thing.

These higher values are so important that I would still want to Brexit even if I absolutely knew that this would mean less funding for universities. But, as I’ve outlined above, we don’t believe that will be the case for a moment. 

James Tooley is professor of education policy at Newcastle University.

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Reader's comments (3)

It is shocking to see an attempt to compare the UK's membership of the European Union to the Soviet occupation of Estonia. The Soviet Union was a murderous dictatorship, the EU is a voluntary union of independent countries. After the Estonians had won their brave fight for freedom and democracy, they joined the European Union as soon as they could because it is what upholds those values in Europe. The Estonian people support their EU membership strongly, with only 8% having a negative view on it according to the latest Eurobarometer.
It's only to be expected that Prof. Tooley would be keen on Brexit. He is, after all, the "high priest of privatisation" in education (obviously) but also generally. It would be laughable (if it weren't so serious) that he actually believes that Brexit will miraculously bring us the 'freedom, democracy, accountability and legitimacy and accountability of government' that we're clearly missing (perhaps because we've never really had them). One thing is certain: the Brexiteers certainly aren't genuinely interested in giving them to us.
An interesting piece. I'm not so sure that the comparison between Estonia and the USSR is all that appropriate. The EU are not an occupying force and the United Kingdom is massively more powerful than little Estonia was or is. Of course, we may not be as powerful for much longer. As a fellow research academic, I think you fail to explore the loss of EU funding opportunities through the ERDF and Horizon 2020. So, for example, Newcastle University earns 10% of its research income from Europe according to the universities own figures. Where will Newcastle gain the extra £15m - Brexit campaigners have spent the money that would be saved by leaving the EU several times over already - on the NHS, on farmings subsidies, on developing the points system immigration policy and all of that assuming the economy doesn't tank. You might suggest the money will come from US sources or from Commonwealth sources or from China? But US trusts are well known to be highly protectionist; China is facing recession; and the Commonwealth needs to build up its own academic infrastructure rather than support Little England - something which the Education Department at Newcastle are actually world-leaders in promoting. Perhaps the Brexiteers will come to the rescue and become overnight philanthropists. However, right wing Tory policy does not seem to be pushing more money into the UK research council pot - in fact, the UK research coffers seem to be ever diminishing source of funds. Of course, you could blame everything on those who disagree with you and as you do in the piece, call the Remain academics a self-interested elite. I think that's a strange view of your fellow academics who strive to embrace collaborative research and collaborative partnerships both in Europe and across the world. After all, that's what world-leading scholarship is all about. What we mustn't do it create a Little England, an academic region which deprives itself of research relationships and European research funding on the off chance that we get more from somewhere else. If people aren't being philanthropic now, God knows why they will be any more philanthropic in the protectionist Little England of a Brexit future.