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Universities want UK to stay in European Union

British and European universities have decided they can’t afford to stand idly by in the big debate about whether the United Kingdom should remain or leave the European Union, writes Nic Mitchell.


With a referendum on the matter called for June 23, and opinion polls showing the UK’s voting public pretty evenly split, the British rectors’ association – UniversitiesUK – has come down firmly in favour of staying within the EU.

Just hours after the starting-pistol was fired in the race to ‘stay-in or get-out’, a letter was published in the Sunday Times signed by 103 vice-chancellors, arguing firmly for Britain to remain.

Unis for EU logoAnd the issue, often called Brexit, dominated the talking at the big annual International Higher Education Forum in London at the beginning of March.

Speaking at a debate organised by the UK Higher Education International Unit, four representatives from outside Great Britain gave their verdicts of what leaving the EU might mean for both British and international higher education.

Learn from the Swiss experience

Most attention was paid to lessons from Switzerland’s referendum, which two years ago saw Swiss universities ‘kicked out’ of EU collaborative partnerships, such as Erasmus and the incoming Horizon research programme, after the country voted by the narrowest of margins to restrict free movement from other EU countries.

Fight for the youth vote, says Professor Philippe Moreillon  from Lausanne University.

Fight for the youth vote, says Professor Philippe Moreillon from Lausanne University.

Professor Philippe Moreillon, vice rector of research and international relations at University of Lausanne, said Swiss higher education and research suffered following the referendum and his university had to re-design hundreds of agreements with universities in other European countries.

He urged UK vice-chancellors “to get out on the streets” and convince young British voters of the value of continued membership of the European Union.

Youth vote critical

“We did a bad job in Switzerland. Our rectors made several announcements in the press, but we didn’t get out on the streets and convince young people to vote.

“The lack of young people voting led to the very narrow shock defeat in the referendum and the loss of our associate membership of the EU”, said Professor Moreillon.

Universities should stress the positives about the EU, he said, and the argument should be about more than what is good for universities. “To appeal to young people it should focus on issues like peace and society.

Professor Ashraf Harem, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Universities Egypt, said: “The EU represents a dream for us in the way different countries have come together to do some good. We couldn’t manage to do the same on a pan-Arab basis despite having similar cultures, identifies and language.”

See more in my University World News report Stay positive in EU vote, UK vice chancellors told’.

‘Inextricably linked to Europe’

One of the most powerful calls to arms has come from Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University.

'Pro-European' Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge

‘Pro-European’ Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge

He told the London International Higher Education Forum: “No matter what Brexit campaigners would wish us to think, we are inextricably linked to Europe.

“It was only though an accident of geology that we became separated from ‘the continent’…and once the Thames, the Seine and the Rhine all flowed into the same river basin, which only became the English Channel we know today after a post-glacial melt.”

Special meaning

For Professor Borysiewicz, the European project has a special meaning.

“I stand here today as the literal embodiment of what that European ideal will allow – I am the British (or rather, Welsh) child of Polish refugees, I grew up in Cardiff, and I now find myself at the helm of a quintessentially British University seeking to maintain its competitiveness not only in the UK, or in Europe, but globally.

“I feel European to my very core.

“And my Britishness is as much a part of this feeling of belonging to Europe as is my Polish genetic background.”

While Professor Borysiewicz, like UniversitiesUK and its International Unit, make great play of the grants British universities receive from the likes of the Horizon 2020 European research programme, there is a growing awareness that the referendum will not be won or lost on the size of European Research Council grants flowing into Britain.

Powerful arguments

More powerful arguments are needed to sway the great British public.

So, it was good to hear the Cambridge University leader remind us that ‘at the heart of this modern European project’ there are some very simple but very powerful ideas.

“That this community of nations, bound by geography, can achieve more, and do better, by working collectively.

“That these countries can avoid war with each other, and improve their lot, by acting in concert.

“That its members will be enriched, not diminished, by allowing their citizens the mobility to seek opportunities.”

Erasmus+Turing to one example, Professor Borysiewicz said: “Studies show that students who have done Erasmus work or study placement are 50% less likely to experience long-term unemployment.

“At a time when our recent graduates face such uncertainty in entering the job market, this fact alone ought to stiffen our resolve. “

Read Professor Borysiewicz’s speech in full here.

With four months to go before the big vote, expect the news columns and airways to be dominated by the Brexit debate, especially in the UK and in higher education circles.

  • To stay in touch with the UK’s Universities for Europe campaign, see here