Worries about the impact on research funding for British universities from a UK exit from the European Union have been “massively exaggerated”, according to Conservative MP Owen Paterson.
At a debate on the EU referendum on 8 March, National Union of Students president Megan Dunn countered by arguing that Brexit would mean Conservative policies on non-EU students that are already a “disgrace” being imposed on EU students.
The two clashed at a debate organised by Universities UK and the NUS titled “Should students care about the EU?”. Mr Paterson, a member of the parliamentary planning committee for Vote Leave, told the audience that a “great many non-EU countries” participated in international collaboration schemes, including in research.
“All this stuff about research is massively exaggerated. Total higher education turnover is over £30 billion – EU research schemes are worth 2.3 per cent of that. All that could come out of the roughly £10 billion we would get back if we made our own laws in our own Parliament,” he said.
Ms Dunn argued that “students have gained so much from the EU”, including from the different perspectives of continental classmates and opportunities to study and work abroad via the Erasmus programme.
Mr Paterson said that in terms of limiting immigration if the UK left the EU, the idea that “we’re going to shut up our boundaries, put up the barbed wire on our beaches and get out the searchlights is just beyond childish…but we have to manage it”.
But Ms Dunn argued that Brexit would mean policies on non-EU students being extended to EU students.
In a statement that brought applause from the audience, she said: “I’d have a lot more faith in that [Mr Paterson’s statement] if it wasn’t coming from a government that refused to take international students out of net migration, that didn’t remove the post-study work visa, that wasn’t implementing NHS levies on international students, that wasn’t implementing landlord checks on international students, that wasn’t demanding international students go to police check-ins…I cannot bear the thought of this government implementing those policies on even more people. I think it’s a disgrace they have been.”
Asked about polling that showed that seven out of 10 UK students were in favour of EU membership, Mr Paterson said: “I think possibly students are having such a good time they are not even thinking about the issues.”
That brought some boos from the mainly student audience. Ms Dunn said that his comment “speaks volumes about the political scenario we find ourselves in, where young people are constantly patronised, constantly spoken down to”.