Brexit – What should universities do in the run up to the referendum?

Professor Michael Arthur, President and Provost of UCL, speaks up in support for UK membership of the EU, highlighting the potentially harmful effects an exit could have on the UK’s Higher Education sector. Writing in a personal capacity, he reflects on the role that universities, and their Vice-Chancellors, should take in the referendum debate. Moreover, he argues that a ‘no’ vote would not only lead to a significant loss of research funding and risk diminishing the diversity of staff and students, but also to a loss of impact in setting the global research agenda.

With Prime Minister David Cameron’s draft EU reform deal on the table, current speculation is that the referendum vote could happen as early as June this year. A good time therefore to put fingers to keyboard and to express my personal view about what universities should (or perhaps should not) do as the debate intensifies.

As many will be aware, UCL hosted a launch event for UUK, during which this collective sector-wide body expressed a view that it would be very bad for UK Higher Education if we were to leave the European Union. It was a one-sided launch event and was never intended to be anything else, but nevertheless it attracted criticism, and was contrasted with the silent approach taken by Scottish universities during the referendum on independence for Scotland.

I was personally amused by the view that if the Vice-Chancellors of the country, either collectively or individually, said ‘no’ to Brexit, that it would inhibit debate within their institutions because members of staff might fear for their jobs. What absolute nonsense. In my experience of nearly 12 years now at this level, if I say one thing, I can absolutely guarantee that many in the university would express the opposite view – seemingly as a matter of principle with respect to academic freedom and freedom of speech. Long may that tradition continue. Any university leader who attempts to work against the grain of those core values is asking for trouble.

So let me be really clear, it is my view that universities should host this debate and allow speakers to express an opinion on either side of the argument – much better to let that debate happen than keep it suppressed, and important for staff and students alike to hear a balanced debate – over time, not necessarily all at the same event – before they make up their own minds on which way to vote. This blog site is an excellent example of a platform for exactly that.

Out of interest, in the period just before the Scottish referendum, UCL did host an event at which Nicola Sturgeon put forward her reasons for why Scotland should become independent. She was warmly received and enthusiastically applauded. The very next morning I had an internal email congratulating UCL on allowing her to speak, but also asking if we could ‘fly the Union Jack in the quad to help save the Union’. I rest my case!

So, why should Vice-Chancellors express either a personal or an institutional view in the case of the EU referendum and why not for Scottish independence? In essence, our main role as Chief Executive and Academic Officers is to do our best for the long-term future of our universities. At one level the role is as simple as that, but in truth almost every day presents complex problems or issues with some form of dilemma, contradiction or conflict. As you tackle such problems you fall back on your stated values and the advice, expertise and experience of your senior team and your governing body, and make judgments about what best to do. I can only assume that Scottish universities decided that a neutral stance was in their best long-term interest during that referendum, whereas there is a clear view amongst UK universities that we should speak out about continued UK membership of the European Union, and that is certainly my personal view.

Let me outline why I believe it is in UCL’s best interests for the UK to stay in the EU. Top of my list would be the importance of people from diverse EU backgrounds and cultures in both the student and staff bodies. We are London’s global university and somehow ‘global minus EU’ sounds far less convincing. We live by the creation of ideas and we believe that inherent to that creativity and ability to problem solve is the wide diversity of cultures represented at UCL. It is our stated mission to be ‘recognised for our radical and critical thinking and its widespread influence: with an outstanding ability to integrate our education, research, innovation and enterprise for the long term benefit of humanity’.

We could do that far less well if had far fewer students and research or academic staff from EU countries. Of course EU students could still come to study in the UK, but they would no longer qualify for fee loans from the UK government and they would be charged full international student fee rates. In addition there would be no Erasmus mobility programme – EU student numbers would be highly likely to drop dramatically. Moreover there would be no development (for the UK at least) of the European Research Area and much less easy movement of postdoctoral researchers or academic staff.

My prediction is that numbers of Europeans studying and working at UCL would drop quite rapidly. The financial outcome from such large shifts of student numbers would be potentially devastating for UCL – at the moment in the order of 12% of our student body is from the EU, which would put about £40M of tuition fee income at risk. The consequences of that don’t bear thinking about.

The impact of Brexit on our research funding would also be a really significant problem for UCL. We are currently the highest funded university in the whole of the EU for Horizon 2020 funding and we also rank in the top three for funding from the European Research Council. That funding supports roughly one in eight of our research staff, working on high quality international research programmes across fields as diverse as archaeology, infectious disease and cosmology.

The UK is a net recipient of research funds from the EU; we achieve more research grant funding than our UK contribution to this part of the EU budget, all of which we would eventually (or perhaps even precipitately) lose with Brexit. Some commentators have suggested that this would simply be replaced by the UK government, but that is, I suggest very unlikely to happen, and certainly not at the ‘enhanced level’ that we currently achieve.

An even more important consideration is that with Brexit, we would lose our ability to influence major research policy decisions and become marginalised and remote from both the research and innovation ecosystems of the EU and from the major European research partnerships. The UK was for example, highly influential in the creation of the ERC in the first place, and the UK has benefitted enormously since its inception.

There are, of course, many other reasons to be against or for Brexit. Those wider political, economic or geo-strategic reasons aren’t things which pose a direct or immediate threat to UCL’s interests. So on those – whether the Common Agricultural Policy, the Eurozone, Schengen or transatlantic relations – I’ll keep my opinions to myself. But when it comes to defending UCL and the UK Higher Education sector, that is my job.

My conclusion is that Brexit is not only highly problematic for UCL, but that such an outcome would adversely affect the global profile and standing of the whole of UK higher education. Why wouldn’t I express an opinion on such a key issue for our future.

Professor Michael Arthur DM, FRCP, FMedSCi, PFHEA is President and Provost of UCL and a former Professor of Medicine.

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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