Nearly 90 per cent of those working in UK higher education will vote Remain in the European Union referendum, while 40 per cent say that they are more likely to leave the country in the event of a Brexit, a Times Higher Education survey suggests.
The online survey, which gained 1,082 responses but carries the caveat of having been a self-selecting survey, found that 88.5 per cent of respondents intend to vote Remain and 9.5 per cent Leave, with 2.1 per cent undecided.
There were 403,835 staff employed in UK higher education in 2014-15 and their likely overwhelming backing for the nation’s continued EU membership will boost the Remain cause.
Asked whether the referendum outcome would affect whether they remain in UK higher education, 59 per cent of respondents said no.
But 40 per cent said that they would be more likely to leave the UK in the event of a Brexit, with just 1 per cent saying that they would be more likely to leave the UK in the event of a Remain vote.
Several respondents raised the prospect of leaving the UK in their comments.
One said: “My entire research team is funded by EU money. Obviously without belonging to the EU we can’t continue with the work we are doing, and given the ESRC [Economic and Social Research Council] etc don’t usually fund work in our field very much these days, it’s just not realistic to imagine that alternative funding will be made available. So I have a feeling we might move bit by bit over to Germany, where the funding for this kind of research is pretty handsome, and better supported generally.”
A number of respondents said that freedom of movement within the EU had brought them career benefits and declared that they viewed immigration as a positive force for individuals and society.
Strength in numbers: across the sector, majority want to stay in
“My entire adult life has been based around the freedoms granted by the EU, which I consider to be my birthright. I have no interest in living in, or being a citizen of, a UK outside the EU,” one respondent said.
John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, identified several factors that could explain heavy weighting towards Remain among those working in universities.
He said that they will “epitomise the relatively socially liberal climate that you will see in most universities”; that academics work in “a profession that’s become increasingly globalised and has a relatively large proportion of non-UK citizens working inside it”; and that “universities have been telling us that it’s in their interests to stay inside the European Union”.
Professor Curtice added: “Both culture and self-interest move in the same direction.”
Universities UK has run a high-profile campaign highlighting what it sees as the benefits of EU membership for British universities, in terms of research funding worth £1.2 billion a year, increased international collaboration in research, and greater researcher and student mobility.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “It seems that on this one issue, vice-chancellors, other staff and students all tend to think alike.”
In the THE survey, the breakdown of voting intentions between academic and professional/support staff (who made up 65 per cent and 35 per cent of respondents, respectively) was virtually identical, while the breakdown across the constituent nations of the UK was extremely similar. Only the small number of respondents from Northern Ireland, where support for Leave was at 15 per cent, showed any greater appetite for Brexit than the UK-wide figure.
About a third of respondents said that they had worked in another EU nation. Of these, 19 per cent had worked in Germany, 17 per cent in France and 9 per cent in Italy.
The survey also asked respondents to state their institutional affiliation. Response numbers by individual institution are small. But among institutions with more than 20 responses, support for Remain was highest at the University of Glasgow and King’s College London (96 per cent) and support for Leave highest at the University of Cambridge (14 per cent).
Among academics, who were asked to state their subject affiliation, support for Remain was highest in the social sciences and business/law (91 per cent) and highest for Leave in engineering (16 per cent).
Mr Hillman said of the survey’s findings in general: “The level of consensus worries me a little in the sense that universities are witnessing less fierce debates about the merits and disadvantages of Brexit compared with some other areas of society, when generally debates on campus are more fierce than those off campus.
“There is also the risk that the Remain side in universities fails to come up with the strongest arguments it can because it is not being forced to hone its points in the cut and thrust of debate as much as it could.”
In terms of the potential impact of the higher education vote, Mr Hillman contrasted the picture with that in the general election when the votes of higher education staff and students “often simply increased Labour MPs’ majorities rather than altering the results in different seats”.
He said: “If the polls on the referendum are correct in showing it is very close, staff and students really could swing the result this time.”