30 Jul 2015   |   News

UK universities launch campaign to stay in EU ahead of Brexit vote

EU membership is overwhelmingly positive for our institutes say university heads, as new campaign to protect £1.2B per annum of European research funding gets into gear this week

Universities UK this week launched a campaign to galvanise scientists’ support and protect the £1.2 billion in European research funding the country receives each year, ahead of the in/out referendum on EU membership.

"It is abundantly clear that the UK's membership of the European Union has an overwhelmingly positive impact on our world-leading universities, enhancing university research and teaching," said Julia Goodfellow, vice-chancellor of the University of Kent and Universities UK president-elect.

“By supporting collaboration and breaking down international barriers, the EU helps universities to carry out cutting-edge research and make discoveries that improve people’s lives and enhance the UK’s global influence,” Goodfellow said at the launch of the Universities for Europe campaign at University College London this week.

The EU helps to attract top talent to UK higher education institutes and provides opportunities abroad for UK students and researchers. “In the referendum debate, universities must stand up and be counted. We should be a powerful and positive voice on the benefits of EU membership,” said Goodfellow, who is a biophysicist and former head of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

The Universities for Europe campaign will ensure that university sector is a strong, positive voice in the referendum debate, Goodfellow said. “From today, universities want to inspire the debate on Europe and ensure that it is informed and strengthened by evidence.”

Not everyone is happy to see universities joining the fray. Paul Nuttall, a former lecturer at Liverpool Hope University and member of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the main promoters of the case for withdrawal from the EU, was very critical, saying the university sector should not “embroil itself” in the EU referendum debate.

"Universities UK is a registered charity and is almost entirely state-funded. It is therefore heavily regulated against engaging in impartial political activity like this,” he said. “It will be interesting to learn how many of Universities UK's representatives are also receiving direct funding from Brussels.”

Daniel Hannan, an anti-EU Conservative politician and a member of the Out brigade, took a similar tack. “The EU pays 1,500 academics. ‘It is difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,’” he said.

Hannan also pointed out that if the UK were outside the EU it could continue to participate in the €77 billion Horizon 2020 research programme, much like non-EU countries such as Norway and Turkey.

But what this argument neglects to mention is the cautionary tale of Switzerland, says Mike Galsworthy, head of the UK’s Scientists for EU lobbying effort. Following a row with the EU over a vote to restrict immigration, Switzerland lost its full privileges with regard to science funding.

Universities UK, which represents 133 higher education institutes, also rebutted arguments that EU bureaucracy holds back UK science. Rather, it has made it simpler to set up the large-scale transnational and interdisciplinary collaborations that are needed to drive forward many areas of scientific research and translation, it says. 

Similarly, the suggestion that the UK would do better if it looked beyond Europe for scientific partnership is countered by Universities UK, which claims there is no need to make an either/or choice.

A date for the referendum on the UK membership of the EU has yet to be set, but the poll could be held as early as June next year.

Business battle lines

Universities are arriving later to the game than many business groups, which began their campaigns before the general election in May, the result of which meant the referendum would go ahead.

The loudest pro-Europe voice belongs to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), which speaks for 190,000 businesses of varying size and sector. Last month the lobby group got a wrap on the knuckles from the Business Minister Sajid Javid, who accused it of playing a poor game of poker by showing its pro-Europe hand before UK Prime Minister David Cameron had even started renegotiating terms with Brussels.

Facing the pro-EU bloc is a mix of Eurosceptic groups. Campaigner Michael Dowsett points to nuances in the position of his pressure group, Business for Britain, which he said is nestled somewhere in between CBI and UKIP. “We’re not ‘in at all costs’ – that’s CBI – and we’re not ‘out’ like UKIP,” he said.

Rather, his group is pitching “change or go”, with a list of 10 demands, ranging from the politically feasible – such as cut-backs on EU diktats and enhanced protection for London’s financial sector – to the difficult and unlikely, like faster international trade deals and extra state control over migration. Without concessions from Brussels, an effort that some senior leaders in Brussels have already dismissed as a fruitless quest, the group will advocate voting for out.

Polling data reveals big exporting companies are the most worried about the referendum. A recent survey by the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators found two out of three big firms in the FTSE 350 stock exchange index think a UK exit from EU could harm them.

Fanning the fear is analysis by the Centre for European Reform, a UK-based think tank, which last year concluded that while a UK exit would not mean factories closing overnight, “It would be harder for firms to justify new investment in their British plants, and component suppliers could opt against building up industrial capacity in the UK.”

Impact of the Greek crisis

There are signs the Greek debt saga - and what is seen by some as Brussels’ mishandling of this crisis - is making EU membership an even tougher sell.

“Yes, Greece makes things a lot harder,” says Galsworthy. “However, as I stated at the UK Universities launch, EU membership has absolutely saved Greek science. Their national science funding is a mess and in April the government even tried to pull all the cash reserves out of Greek universities, which included EU project funds, to pay off the IMF [International Monetary Fund, one of Greece’s creditors].”

“The rectors refused, citing their abilities to function and legalities of EU commitments. Now imagine if all that funding had been national? Voomf! Gone! Cue research collapse. So EU membership has kept Greek science alive, with quality programmes forging international links,” Galsworthy said.

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