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Debate questions British values – but evidence of EU impact should decide our fate

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Our universities can only continue to flourish if Britain remains in the European Union, according to an overwhelming majority of staff, students and the community who attended Brunel’s second Big Question discussion.

The debate, held in partnership with Universities UK, asked Will British universities be stronger inside or outside the European Union?, considering both viewpoints of the EU referendum campaign as panellists each presented their vision for the future.

But despite compelling arguments for a stronger Britain released from its European shackles and able to control its own borders, it was the direct threat to the Higher Education sector that proved to be decisive.

The panel, chaired by acclaimed academic and the former Chairman of NHS London Professor Michael Spyer, included Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool Professor Janet Beer and CEO of leading distribution company NFT Distribution David Frankish arguing to remain in the EU; and former special adviser to Michael Gove at the Department for Education Jamie Martin, and the founder of Wetherspoon pub chain Tim Martin arguing to leave.

Prof Beer started the debate by saying that international and outward-looking campuses relied on the relationships that membership of the EU brings, adding that: “What interests me most in the referendum debate is not the political posturing but the evidence. In universities, we love evidence.

“The EU supports researchers to achieve more together than they could do alone. But its contribution to UK universities is not primarily about money. The reason EU support is unique and irreplaceable at a national level is that it’s focused on supporting collaboration.”

She argued that, at her university, 30 per cent of academic staff are from the EU while the number is around 15 per cent across the UK. Prof Beer added that she had no confidence that those members of staff wouldn’t be affected by Brexit.

Recognising the value of the EU to British universities, Mr Frankish told the audience: “Connections are vital for the UK. Some of the students coming across from Europe will stop in the UK and create businesses. Others will go back and they’ll want to do business with the UK.”

The value is an economic one too, he argued. “UK universities benefit to the tune of half a billion pounds a year from direct EU grants,” Mr Frankish said, adding that students from the EU paying fees was “new money coming in…universities create exports.”

However, Tim Martin argued that the economics of the in/out argument demonstrated an “air of unreality” in the pro-EU stance pointing out that, “It doesn’t follow that from not being part of the European Union that anyone has to go home or that people currently eligible to be here won’t stop.” From a business perspective, he added, “It’s in the interest of European Union countries to continue trading with Britain in the same way they always have.”

Jamie Martin told the audience that universities need not fear life after Brexit, adding: “The fact is if Britain left the European Union we would continue to take part in and receive funding from European Higher Education programmes. This debate is about different visions of the future.

“My vision is that if we leave the EU we can become indisputably the world’s leading country for Higher Education and science.”

The drive of the leave argument has often focused on being able to control Britain’s future, and Jamie Martin told the audience that the bureaucracy of the EU was holding the country back. He said: “When the European Union was founded in the 1950s it was in vogue to build the biggest possible bureaucracy.” He added that it remains an “analogue institution in a digital age”.

The focus of the debate hinged on how Britain saw its own place in Europe, with one member of the audience asking whether Britain wanted to remain and be “part of the club, but not at the top table”.

Prof Beer responded: “Twenty per cent of all European research funds from the European Research Council come to us and that’s massively outperforming other countries. I don’t see any change in student or staff mobility or losing our place at the top table.”

Another audience member said that the British lack national pride, adding that the future of the country was to emphasise Britishness.

Mr Frankish responded by saying: “I believe in British values, but being in the EU doesn’t prejudice that.” He added that it was the responsibility of Britain to spread those values through its relationships with the rest of Europe.

But Jamie Martin summed up by saying that voters needed to consider how best to retain our British values. He added: “Don’t believe the scare stories from the national arguments to remain. The ballot you all cast is the moment important vote you will cast in your entire life. You will be voting for your vision of the future of this country. Do you want that vote to be motivated by fear or by hope?”

Closing the debate, Prof Spyer asked the audience to revisit the question of the night – Will British universities be stronger inside or outside the European Union? As at the beginning of the event, the majority agreed that remaining in the EU was best for Higher Education in Britain, though Prof Spyer pointed out that a handful of people had been persuaded by the leave arguments put before them.

The event was followed by a university-level debate on the impact of Brexit on British universities, hosted by the Brunel Politics Society.

Students from the departments of Politics, History and Law were given two minutes each to outline their position on UK membership in the EU, with expert contributions from Dr Katja Sarmiento-Mirwaldt and Dr Dimitrios Giannoulpoulos. Students were urged to turn out to vote in the upcoming referendum. 

The Big Question events form part of Brunel University London’s 50th Anniversary celebrations. The last of the discussions asking What is really to blame for the obesity epidemic? will be held on 27 April. To find out more about all the events the university has planned to celebrate its 50th, visit www.brunel.ac.uk/fifty.