Brexit, pursued by a scare

Leaving the EU would be a disaster for UK universities, but pro-Europe campaigners have to choose their message carefully

July 16, 2015
John Gill, editor, Times Higher Education
Source: Peter Searle

After weeks of political farce and no little tragedy, the European Union appears, for the time being at least, to have avoided what has become known as Grexit.

The drama put the European project centre stage, as politicians for the first time seriously considered the mechanics and implications of a member state crashing out.

Faced with such spasms, few would have been thinking about the potential for another, more orderly, exit from the EU – although not from the euro – when Britain votes on its membership in the next year or two.

But is it possible that the chaos in Greece could influence the Brexit ballot?

Referendums, by definition, are measures of national feeling on a particular issue at a specific point in time, and who knows what exactly the mood will be in two years.

But cast your mind back to the Scottish independence referendum last September; as fierce as the debate was, the decision by Scots to vote to stay in the UK always seemed the more likely outcome.

Would the same be true today? Less than 12 months after the vote, with the Scottish National Party having swept Labour off the map in the general election, would the man who bet £900,000 on a “no” vote last year make the same gamble a second time around?

To return to the EU referendum, while David Cameron may have felt reasonably confident about the outcome when he promised a vote, that assurance may be ebbing away in light of the chaos in Greece, particularly if public opinion is swayed by any further ructions in the next two years.

This is a huge worry for universities, which take the view that EU membership is vital to the strength of UK higher education. In our cover story this week, we assess the implications of Brexit from this perspective, and in particular the potential loss of £1.2 billion a year in European research funding.

José Manuel Barroso, a former president of the European Commission, points out that the UK “receives more [of this funding] than its economic or demographic dimension would entitle it to receive”.

For others, such as Alison Wolf, Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King’s College London, of all the many reasons for staying in Europe, protecting research funding is at the weak end of the spectrum (not least since she would expect the money that the UK puts into the EU research fund simply to be paid directly to UK researchers).

Ultimately, the campaign to stay in Europe will not be won or lost on such relative minutiae, but on a much broader feeling about what sort of society the UK wants to be and its place in the world.

The danger of any university-led campaign is that it looks like special pleading if it focuses on the money, and to give Universities UK its due, it has recognised this by highlighting the crucial role of international networks (and not just cash) in delivering research that improves lives around the world. It’s an argument that has the great advantage of being true. The question is how much heft it will have in the face of the emotional arguments about national borders and sovereignty that will dominate the referendum campaign proper.

john.gill@tesglobal.com

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