Universities UK is wrong to take sides on question of EU membership

Universities have put their boxing gloves on. Brexit via Gutzemberg/www.shutterstock.com

The leadership of British universities has come out in favour of continued UK membership of the EU. Universities UK, their representative organisation, has recently launched Universities for Europe to campaign on this issue.

As the organisation’s president-elect, Julia Goodfellow, put it at the launch event: “Universities must stand up and be counted. We should be a powerful and positive voice on the benefits of EU membership.”

But should they? I think there is a danger that, by taking such a clear stand on such a hotly debated political issue, universities may make it harder for their staff to foster precisely those sorts of debates that universities are meant to encourage.

The claims UUK makes about the benefits of EU membership are based on assessments of the interests of universities as organisations. UUK being a lobby group like any other, it can be forgiven for eliding the national and the particular interest.

The claims are quite straightforward. Universities derive significant income from EU funding. Large numbers of students and academics profit from intra-EU mobility schemes funded by the union.

There is no doubt that links with EU states contribute massively to British universities – £1.2 billion annually in European research funding goes to universities in the UK. And they are disproportionately successful in applying for these funds – 20% of all European Research Council advanced grants were won by British based researchers in 2014.

Induction day for Erasmus students. ISCTE-IUL - Instituto Universitário de Lisboa, CC BY-NC-ND

Large numbers of undergraduates and graduates from the EU study in UK universities. And these universities are often staffed by a number of academics from other member states – 20% of the Russell group universities’ academic staff in the 2012-13 academic year were nationals of other EU member states.

Not a total disaster

Yet would this system crumble in the event of Brexit? Even if all formal ties with the EU were to be severed, some of the money saved from UK contributions to the EU budget could be used to provide additional national research funding.

EU students could be made to pay higher fees and no one knows for sure how many of them would continue to come here to study if that were the case. And surely simple bilateral agreements could maintain exchange agreements with partner institutions?

A complete severing of ties with the EU, then, might not have as profound an impact as pro-membership campaigners might have us believe. And it is highly unlikely that this would occur even if the British people do vote for Brexit. More likely, subsequent negotiations would lead to some kind of “associate” status – just as Norway, Turkey and Israel are associated with the Horizon 2020 programme EU research programme.

Implications for academics

There should be no doubt about what the stance adopted by UUK means. Its members are the heads of universities in the UK, not the staff of these institutions. So it is not the case that “universities” have expressed a preference. Rather, their vice chancellors and principals have.

Yet the fact that these individuals have chosen to speak out has implications for their academic staff. And it’s possible that the public stance adopted by university leaders could make their staff’s task more difficult. Universities are centres of learning and debate. To see them adopt such a definitive position on an issue that goes far beyond the world of higher education might potentially compromise their ability to act as such.

For one thing, the Universities for Europe campaign is hardly a model of impartial enquiry. UUK are seeking “compelling short case studies that illustrate the benefits to the UK economy, society and people of [EU membership]”. Their intention is to: “use these stories publicly to promote the value of European Union membership”.

In the social sciences, this is known as “selection bias”. In society at large it is simply bias. Rather than presenting a balanced case based on the evidence, our leaders aim to select evidence to fit their predetermined argument.

More broadly, the fact that UUK has so publicly and stridently taken sides makes the job of academics who study the EU all the more difficult. This includes those of us within the ESRC’s UK in a Changing Europe initiative who are trying to lay out, in an impartial way, what social science research tells us about the EU.

Many of those who favour British exit are already inherently suspicious of universities – an “EU funded conspiracy” as one Eurosceptic put it to me well before the launch of the UUK campaign. However ill-founded such claims may be, the fact that universities have taken the line they have will only confirm such suspicions. There is a tension between the UUK campaign and the stated desire of its members to ensure universities are home to lively debates on the EU membership question.

The Scottish model

There was another way of doing this. During the Scottish referendum debate in 2014, universities took no position, while a passionate debate broke out between academics over the pros and cons of an independent Scotland. Three universities – Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh – actually left the business lobby group the CBI after it came out for Scotland remaining part of the union.

In Scotland, universities acted as they were meant to: as venues for impassioned debate over the key issues of our time. It might have been preferable had they considered this option again.


This article is co-published with the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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