Britain’s EU membership is a win-win for higher education

The UK is an energising force on the Continent, with staff and student mobility crucial to our ability to compete internationally

March 10, 2016
Handshake in front of European Union and United Kingdom flags

Scan through the columns of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, and it’s always a bit of a surprise that Europe doesn’t do better.

Wasn’t the university as we know it invented in Bologna and Berlin? Why, then, do the Continent’s best – with a few notable exceptions – languish so far behind those of the UK, US and Australia?

In reality, treating the Continent as one homogeneous lump is far too simple, and there are great strengths to be found: German universities, for example, climbed impressively in our most recent world rankings.

But there are areas where continental Europe is clearly limping behind the UK, both in terms of national performance (particularly in eastern and southern Europe), and structures (for example, the relative lack of autonomy in many European universities).

One result of this power imbalance is that the UK has done particularly well out of the European Union in terms of research funding, taking far more than its “fair share” from the European Research Council.

But it would be wrong to paint a picture of the UK as a one-sided “taker”. Speaking to THE last month, Bernd Huber, president of LMU Munich, was clear that a Brexit would be “a catastrophe” for European higher education, because “the UK always stands for competition and for performance”.

There is real admiration for UK higher education on the Continent, and a sense that it drives up performance by offering what Huber calls a different “philosophy, view and perspective”. A similar point is made in this week’s cover feature, which ranks Europe’s top 200 universities.

Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute of Education, says that the top universities in northwestern Europe have “significantly lifted their performance” after being “energised” by the global league tables.

One example of this is the German Excellence Initiative, which has funnelled unprecedented levels of funding to a select group of universities (the effect of which is discussed in our feature by Huber, and will be explored in detail in a forthcoming issue of THE).

This initiative was sparked by external comparison and a desire to compete internationally. Such an outward-looking stance is equally important to the UK, and at a time when so much political debate is dominated by talk of border controls, it’s worth emphasising that openness to staff and students is crucial to our universities’ competitiveness.

The point was made by Anton Muscatelli, vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow, who recently told a seminar in London that it was a mistake for university leaders to focus only on a “cost-benefit analysis” when arguing to remain in the EU. “The lifeblood of universities is the mobility of scholars and students…Mobility was part of the university from the very beginning,” he said.

The movement of people may be the story of our time, but universities have for centuries been the beating heart of a connected world.

International recruitment wouldn’t grind to a halt if a Brexit were to happen, but it could only be harmed, especially if the UK’s exit from Horizon 2020 makes it less attractive regardless of visa issues. That would be a practical and cultural blow for the global higher education system, not just for those of us who inhabit a small island in the north Atlantic.

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