UK universities are committed to campaigning to remain in the European Union, but last week’s European Council summit showed that academics who want higher education regulations and institutions fit for the modern world should break ranks and campaign for the UK to leave.
The UK’s dwindling demands show that there will be scant reform of the EU before next year’s in-out referendum, and none in the areas most important to universities. The EU will retain its outmoded, parochial rules on immigration and student fees, and its anti-science culture, while its glacial bureaucracy and adamantine institutions will worsen under plans for further centralisation of power.
Freed of these worst aspects of EU membership but retaining close cooperation with European universities and research programmes, British higher education would flourish. We could have an immigration and regulatory system focused on attracting the world’s brightest minds and boldest research. Currently, an unskilled Spaniard has more right to work here than a South Korean professor from the California Institute of Technology, and the least qualified Italian student more right to subsidised fees than the brightest Indian undergraduate.
An immigration system based on European nationality rather than skills is hopelessly outdated and has lost the confidence of the public. Outside the EU, we could both have the immigration control desired by voters and offer the best students and academics preferential treatment (such as automatic work visas after graduation and an expedited academic talent visa akin to the US’ O-1). Free to charge EU students full fees, UK universities could use the resulting income on scholarships for the world’s best, regardless of nationality.
A UK free of the EU could also promote simpler, more adaptive regulations. We would no longer be constrained by damaging EU rules that physicist Sir Andre Geim said in his 2010 Nobel prize lecture were “discrediting the whole idea of an effectively working Europe”. These were typified by the EU Clinical Trials Directive, which Morris Brown, professor of clinical pharmacology at the University of Cambridge, described in 2009 as “a disaster that threatens patients’ lives”. Brown’s research demonstrated that the directive’s obstructive bureaucracy had halved the number of UK non-commercial clinical trials, while a King’s College London researcher estimated that it doubled the cost of cancer trials, yet it took the EU more than 10 years to make a still-compromised correction.
Furthermore, the EU fails to stand up for the scientific method against vested interests or vocal anti-scientific lobbying. It explicitly excuses homeopaths from regulations that require medicines to prove their efficacy and issued a directive promoting homeopathy for animals. The EU’s own scientific panel said “there is no rationale for inhibiting or restricting the use” of genetically modified foods, which could save countless lives in the developing world. Yet Brussels responded with a directive that facilitated bans in member states and drove cutting edge biotech firm BASF to leave for the US.
Academics acknowledge the flaws of EU regulation but the importance of EU funding means they don’t wish to, or dare not, speak out. This is understandable given that Horizon 2020 money could amount to a fifth of the UK science budget. In recent years, the EU has supported some of the most interesting research around, from the FuturICT project to the TALOS work on drones. However Universities UK’s argument that leaving the EU risks losing this funding shows insufficient confidence in the UK’s world-leading universities and their European partners. Working relationships built over decades between researchers and departments across Europe will not be abandoned at the whim of politicians. The UK will still collaborate on EU projects, as do other non-EU countries such as Norway and Israel. Making research coordination a priority in post-referendum negotiations, plus our universities’ greater importance to EU programmes, would allow us to avoid the difficulties Switzerland has had in participating from outside since it voted to restrict immigration from the EU.
Moreover, it is an explicit goal of the Vote Leave campaign to allocate some of the estimated £15 billion annual dividend from leaving the EU to increasing the UK’s science budget.
Reassured about funding, academics can concentrate on the EU’s inconvenient truth: you cannot solve the problems of 2025 with the institutions and attitudes of 1955. FuturICT’s research concluded that “the concept of super governments ruling their citizens…will not work in the long run”, yet the EU’s Five Presidents’ report, published in June, commits to greater centralisation of power. By 2030, more than 90 per cent of science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates will come from outside Europe, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, yet the EU’s common research area may not include Switzerland, let alone South Korea or India.
It is not possible to reform an institution so unfit for the modern age and heading so resolutely in the wrong direction. The UK can only leave and then, with the world’s most pro-higher education regulatory, immigration and funding regime, our universities could take a leading role in the urgent task of building the decentralised, agile and truly global institutions of the future.
Jamie Martin is an independent education consultant and was a special adviser to Michael Gove when he was secretary of state for education.