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Can universities really risk leaving the European Union?

Psychology department facilities

Professor Julia Buckingham, Vice Chancellor and President of Brunel University London, asks what Brexit could mean for the future of Higher Education in Britain:

As opinion continues to flow about what Brexit would mean for the country, I have just one question to ask fellow academics, peers and students currently making their way through the Higher Education sector – can we risk losing everything the European Union has already afforded us, in the face of such uncertainty?

Many have already predicted a future in which Britain stands alone, and put under the microscope the fortunes of every facet of society. Politicians of all persuasions have picked a side, and even those who agree may disagree about how exactly they have reached their decision.

Does it make us any wiser? Well, it’s certainly wise to listen to the arguments for and against. Do you believe, as the think tank Open Europe does, that risking free trade with Europe could lose the UK 2.2 per cent of its total GDP by 2030? Or do you think that fact is far outweighed by the benefits of a Britain that controls its borders, even its future?

Of course it’s near impossible to predict. Particularly so for Higher Education which has its own set of arguments and its own unpredictable future with which to contend, though Universities UK has made clear its position with its Universities for Europe campaign.

I can state with certainty, however, just how much UK Higher Education institutions have already benefitted from EU membership.

One huge advantage for Brunel is being able to attract top talent from mainland Europe to the campus. Every institution aspires to bring in the best researchers to drive global innovation, the best teachers to inspire the innovators of the future, and the best students to go out into the world and make a difference. Where the latter is concerned, universities have a vital role too in giving British students the opportunities to take up placements in European countries, developing them as global citizens.

So it should be a source of great pride that earlier this year, Times Higher Education rankings placed 39 UK institutions among the most international universities in the world, demonstrating that Britain is leading the way in making these important global connections.

Meanwhile, UCAS confirmed that the number of English students to apply to UK universities by this year’s 15 January deadline fell by 1 per cent, while in the same period the number of EU applicants rose by 6 per cent.

It’s a trend that is likely to continue in the current climate, but there’s no guarantee that would be the case should Brexit become a reality.

Britain’s membership of the EU has enabled universities like Brunel to flourish, increasing opportunities for fruitful collaborations across the continent. This is demonstrated by Brunel’s £15 million Advanced Metal Casting Centre, which looks to bridge the gap between research and industry. The programme has benefitted from UK funding, via the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), but will unlock a further £62m of private sector support from businesses including French company Constellium and British company Jaguar Land Rover, the holder of an extensive supply chain across Europe.

European collaboration is also central to British universities’ role in changing policy. Having significant in-roads into Europe gives growth to projects such as the new Britain in Europe research network, a think tank set up to consider Britain’s relationship with the continent, with the aim of influencing public policy on human rights.

Then there is our Co-innovate initiative, a project that invites small and medium-sized businesses to exploit relationships with university researchers and facilities - funded by the European Regional Development Fund. Thanks to this initiative, more than 260 enterprises have benefitted from university-business collaboration, boosting British business and enabling it to compete on a global scale.

Similar good news stories can be found at universities across the country but who’s to say whether post-Brexit researchers would continue to be able to access major EU research-infrastructure projects like these? The possibility of leaving the EU should be seen as a risk to the contribution our universities make to economic growth and social prosperity. The crucial question is whether we would want to take that chance.

There may be a raft of political arguments for Brexit – and these may well be the arguments that pique the interest of the public as the country looks towards referendum. But as far as educating the innovators, the leaders, of the future goes, surely it makes more sense to build on everything membership of the EU has already given us.

On 17 March, Brunel University London and Universities UK will ask a panel of pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics from academia and industry what they believe Brexit would mean for British universities and society. Register for the event here.