British universities should campaign for the UK to stay in the European Union if there is a referendum on membership, the vice-chancellor of Cardiff University has said.
Colin Riordan, who is also chair of the UK Higher Education International Unit, made the comments after an informal agreement on EU Horizon 2020 research funding was struck in a deal thought to have exceeded the UK’s expectations.
The academy must be ready to make the case for EU membership if a vote is put to the British public, he told Europe: At the Heart of Internationalisation, a Universities UK event held in London on 26 June.
Higher education institutions, the University and College Union and the National Union of Students have remained scrupulously neutral in the debate over Scottish independence in advance of the 2014 referendum.
But UK universities benefit from access to European research funding and in 2011-12 educated more than 13,000 EU students – although institutions could charge those students much higher fees if the UK left the union.
David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, has pledged to hold a referendum on EU membership after the next general election but before 2017. Labour has not promised a vote.
Asked how the sector could keep working with Europe with the shadow of a referendum hanging over the next five years, Ian Diamond, vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, told the event that his institution continued to work with UK research councils despite the slim prospect of a vote in favour of Scottish independence, and would take the same approach with Europe. “We have to consider that we are part of Europe and continue to engage absolutely fully,” he said.
On 25 June an informal deal was agreed on allocations to various funding priorities by Europe’s €70.2 billion (£60 billion) research framework, Horizon 2020, which is set to start in 2014.
“We understand that we [the UK] have got most of what we asked for,” Professor Riordan told the event. The European Research Council will get 17 per cent of the total budget, a “spectacular” amount, he said.
“We tend to do very well in those areas, as it’s based on peer review and open competition,” he argued. “It’s a good deal because UK universities will benefit if we continue to be as good as we have been.”
In a separate development on 26 June, the European Parliament agreed plans that between 2014 and 2020 would nearly double the number of students receiving support to study abroad under the Erasmus scheme, which will be renamed Erasmus+.