A vote for Brexit is a vote for uncertainty in higher education

Angela Eagle says that EU membership is vital for the future of universities and the economy

March 17, 2016
EU and UK flags

Scroll to bottom for details of the Hepi/THE EU referendum essay competition


We can be rightly proud of our world-leading universities. They add billions to the economy, and they are of incalculable value to our society. But, with the referendum on our continued membership of the European Union fast approaching, the future for our universities – along with the country as a whole – is on the ballot paper. A vote for exit from the largest single market in the world would be a vote for uncertainty for our universities and the country as a whole.

Our universities compete in a truly international marketplace. The UK’s membership of the EU helps universities recruit the best and brightest from across the world. There are 125,000 EU students studying in UK universities, generating £2.3 billion for the UK economy and supporting 19,000 jobs across the country. EU nationals make up 15 per cent of academic staff at UK universities. I recently visited a laboratory where a British academic led a team of postdoctoral students from the UK, Poland, Italy, Portugal, France, Spain and Lithuania. He explained that, in his highly specialised field, being able to recruit from world-leading experts across the Continent contributed greatly to his vital research. He explained how both the quality of science and the science base in the UK would be diminished if we left the EU.

Being part of the EU helps to enhance the student experience for our young people. UK students can study and work across the EU without the need for visas or bureaucratic hassle, giving them the opportunity to broaden their horizons and boost their employability. Some 200,000 UK students have studied abroad through the EU’s Erasmus exchange programme.

Membership matters for research, too. High-quality research is essential to the success of our universities. Earlier this month I visited the University of Bradford and Newcastle University. I heard about pioneering research projects, funded through the European Research Council, that are pushing the boundaries of science and engineering and helping to turn them into the technology of tomorrow. Our EU membership helps UK universities access funding and collaborate on cross-border research projects that will help us to address the challenges of tomorrow and drive growth and prosperity. Almost half the international research collaborations that UK universities have are with universities in other EU member states. We punch above our weight on research funding; UK universities won 15.4 per cent of EU funding in the last round. And we get out more than we put in; the Royal Society has shown that the UK benefits from a net gain of EU research funding to the tune of €3.4 billion (£2.7 billion).

In a global marketplace where universities compete for students, academics and research funding, being part of the largest single market in the world really matters.

The continuing success of our world-leading university sector matters not just for universities and students, but for everyone. A strong university sector is vital to a strong economy.

Labour wants to build a new economy, one based on higher skills, higher productivity and higher pay, where strong sustainable growth benefits all. We recognise that the only way we can succeed in an increasingly competitive global market is to win the race to the top.

Universities are essential to that endeavour. The sector is worth £73 billion to the national economy, and it employs almost 400,000 people; figures show that it is one of our most valuable export industries. Having the world’s best and brightest studying in the UK not only brings much needed investment, it builds our links with the rest of the world, enhancing our soft power and supporting international trade.

The Tories are split down the middle on our continued membership of the European Union.

My opposite number, Sajid Javid, claims to be in; but he has also said that the decision was “very difficult” and proudly claims to still be a Eurosceptic and a “Brussels basher”. 

And the universities minister, Jo Johnson, is reluctantly in, too; however, his better-known and rather more ambitious brother is the leading voice inside the party for exit from the EU.

The Tories are putting their own ideological obsession above the needs of our economy and the interests of our universities.

Universities have much at stake in June’s EU referendum. They have a voice in this debate; they should use it. I am pleased to see Universities for Europe encouraging discussions on the topic and highlighting the importance of the EU to the sector. And I am pleased that Times Higher Education is engaging with this vital question; I look forward to reading the contributions to the essay competition.

Our continued membership of the EU is essential both to the health of our world-leading universities sector and to the wider economy. But our place at the top isn’t inevitable or guaranteed; it depends on our being outward-looking, ambitious and open to the world. 

Angela Eagle is shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills.

Hepi/THE EU referendum essay competition

The Higher Education Policy Institute and Times Higher Education are joining forces for an essay-writing competition on UK higher education’s place in the European Union. There will be a £200 prize for the best entry on each side of the argument, and a number of the best entries will be published on the THE blog. Essays should be no longer than 1,000 words and must focus on the potential consequences of the referendum for universities. The winners will be judged for the quality of their argument and their writing. 

Please send entries to admin@hepi.ac.uk by 23 May.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments