On Wednesday this week, I took part in a debate in Parliament on the effect on Universities of leaving the EU. The UK’s universities are one of our greatest success stories. They are beacons of world-class research and teaching across the sciences, arts, and humanities, contribute £73 billion to the economy, and directly employ over 350,000 people. The 2015-16 Times Higher Education World University Rankings put three British universities in the top ten and seven in the top fifty, more than any other country apart from the US. Locally, the University of Essex’s latest economic impact report found that it contributes £464 million per annum to the East of England economy and employs 2,545 people.
The UK’s universities excelled before we first joined the EEC in 1973 and will continue to thrive after we leave. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union should raise no concerns. However, universities are entitled to seek reassurances regarding the implications of the leave vote for the recruitment of students and staff from the European Union, research funding, collaboration and their global reputation.
The UK is one of the largest net contributors to the EU and in 2014 the ONS put our net contribution at £9.9 billion. Therefore, when the UK leaves the EU, the UK government could continue to fund all the UK programmes currently funded by the EU and still have £9.9 billion per year left. With this in mind, no government would use the pretext of leaving the EU to cut funding for UK universities, which make such a valuable contribution to the UK in all the ways outlined above and more.
Given the strength of our higher education sector, universities post-Brexit will also be no less able to participate in multi-lateral research programmes than they are already. Many non-EU states already participate in such programmes and the UK should also be able to do so. The Erasmus+ student mobility programme also includes non-EU countries as members and given the knowledge base of our universities, there is little incentive for the EU to cut off the access of its citizen’s to them. At the same time, leaving the EU might encourage British universities to expand the scope of their collaborations more widely around the world.
Finally, regarding access to the UK for EU students, universities will actually benefit from the rise in fees for EU students upon our departure from the EU, since they are currently charged the same tuition fees as home students. This extra income could be used for research, to employ more teaching staff, or to provide more equal access for poorer British undergraduates.
Leaving the EU is not to leave Europe. Nor will our universities lose their ability to collaborate and recruit from Europe by embracing the world. Outside the EU our universities have as great a future, if not a greater future, than if we remained in the EU.