Why leaving the EU would be damaging for UK higher education

Conservative MP Neil Carmichael, chair of the Education Select Committee, on the risks to the higher education sector of exiting the EU

December 11, 2015
European Union (EU) flag missing star (Brexit)

In early December I returned to the University of Nottingham where I had studied for my politics degree. 

My visit was to meet with the School of Education academics to discuss the work of the Education Select Committee, and how they could contribute to our ongoing research and inquiries. However, another part of the visit took me to the Siemens Computer Aided Manufacture Suite to see students working on their Greenpower electric racing car, manufacturing components using 3D printers. This, I thought, was an exciting and excellent collaboration between the university and Siemens.

The visit highlighted to me again the real risks that the forthcoming referendum on our membership of the European Union will have to the higher education sector. Universities and colleges across the country have built innovative collaborations with companies and their counterparts across the EU which, in the face of necessary UK public spending restraint, enables us to continue to build our research capacity within the EU. 

One simple fact always stands out for me: more than 3,500 researchers, often setting out on their careers, have been supported by the EU to improve their skills, helping to turn research and innovation into jobs and growth. Being in the EU makes it easier for UK universities to attract talented staff – 15 per cent of all academic staff at our universities are from other EU countries.

Read more: Brexit – the perks and pitfalls for higher education

More than 200,000 students and 20,000 staff have benefited from study abroad through Erasmus work and study placements – which is the biggest source of funding for study abroad. In fact, it is a UK government priority to increase the numbers of UK students gaining international experience, and students who have pursued such experience have been shown to be more likely to start their own business, driving the skilled employment and increased productivity of the UK economy that we need to see to succeed in the global marketplace. 

Likewise, EU students studying in the UK are estimated to spend over £2 billion for the UK economy and support 19,000 British jobs in their local communities.

Since my election as chair of the Education Select Committee, I have also been struck by the support among young people and students for our continued membership of a reformed EU. This was reconfirmed again at the end of my visit to Nottingham where I participated in the University of Nottingham “Great EU Debate”, speaking in support of our continued membership. The show of hands at the end of the debate was overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. 

The European Union Referendum Bill returned to the House of Commons recently with a vote on the issue of extending votes to 16- and 17-year-olds in the referendum at the fore. I voted to support the extension of the franchise, which sadly was not carried, as it is this generation which will have to live with the decision, probably for the majority of their lifetimes – and it is their opportunities that would most be impacted by the vote – potentially within just a year as they embark on studies at university where the impact of a potential “No” vote could hit hard on the opportunities available and funding for research. I still believe it is absolutely right that they must have a say.

Campuses across the country will provide vigorous debate about the need for continued membership, and student and academic voices need to be heard. Strong universities benefit the British economy, educate our workforce and provide the opportunities for individuals to compete in the global race, and membership of the EU enhances these prospects.

Neil Carmichael is chair of the Education Select Committee and MP for Stroud. He also chairs the Conservative Group for Europe which campaigns for continuing membership of a reforming European Union.

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