EU referendum: nine out of 10 university staff back Remain

THE survey finds 40 per cent of respondents say they are more likely to depart UK if Leave wins

June 16, 2016
Man with European Union (EU) flag in back pocket
Source: Getty
Firm backing: the strong pro-Remain views reflect the ‘relatively socially liberal climate’ of universities and a ‘globalised’ profession

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

Strength in numbers: across the sector, majority want to stay in (16 June 2016)

“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.

EU referendum: academics see immigration as ‘hugely positive’

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.”

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Print headline: EU referendum: 9 out of 10 university staff back Remain

Reader's comments (5)

Hello - I am sorry but I am not surprised to hear this - I am a student at Gloucestershire College and I have been working with the staff there for the last 3 years and they are living in another world. I fear they will have to get used to very quickly the fact that we have Left. Unfortunately they usually take about 6-12-18 months to do anything. Hopefully they will start to realise market pressures and become more dynamic in raising their own money from businesses.
The methodology is really rubbish - fewer than 20 bothered to respond in most institutions - but let us assume that this article is accurate in some way. If that is the case and the latest polls show a 6% leave lead (one just in from IPSOS-MORI a few hours ago) then this is an indication that many universities have become, culturally, dislocated from their contexts. For many they are perceived to be part of an unrepresentative, rootless, globalised elite, as socially 'useless' and ruthlessly self-interested as bankers. Some are obviously better than others but, for example, Cambridge University could be on the moon for all the obvious interest it shows in the surrounding region (indeed, it just actively campaigned to be split off from the rest of East Anglia in a local devolution plan because it is more interested in London and the 'Golden Triangle'). Indeed, whilst Cambridge is probably one of the most 'In' places in England, just up the road, in the same county, Peterborough is the most 'Out' but the two have virtually no connections at all. Academics in Cambridge are far more likely to have been to Boston Mass than Boston Lincs. If this referendum goes against the universities perhaps they ought to take time to think about why they have become so disconnected from the places in which they live and what the consequences of that have been, rather than just berating those who want to leave for being ignorant and not sharing their values. Shutting down (virtually) all the Continuing Ed departments and abandoning regional provision when the last Labour government took the money out with ELQ, might be part of the problem but obviously it goes much deeper than that. Even if Remain win - which is still very likely - I hope some universities will take the opportunity for serious reflection. When a VC opens his or her mouth to talk about the benefits of the EU and takes home well over four times the salary of the Prime Minister, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that their opinions count for little amongst so many.
The article fails to reveal certain truths: How many of the respondents are of foreign extraction? They will not have such a strong allegiance to the UK as UK permanent residents. UK universities have been building stronger connections with the EU and other parts of the world with regards to student recruitment. They cannot survive without a large intake of foreign students, so they will be reluctant to vote to leave the EU. Higher Education has become global business and has weakened its ties with its homeland.
I agree with HelenaH, most of the academics I know have very little understanding of real life and like many politicians live in a bubble of misinformation.
I note that all comments here are by proxyname and are unanimous in condemning academics as otherwordly, detached and arrogant. The respondents see little value in research apparently and therefore are unconcerned about reductions to the British science budget. Of course, if this outlook were adopted generally it would pave the way to a non-innovative economy where British workers have to compete on price/wage with workers in, say, Eastern Europe or China or Bangladesh and consequently accept their living standards as well. Most Western economies are dependent on continuous innovation to justify the, relatively, higher living standards of their populations. Whether after a Brexit more or less money is available to science is debatable (and whether all science funding is well directed is another debate again). But the continuous innovation, much of which is done at Universities, is essential for the living standard of all UK residents.

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