The vast majority of university vice-chancellors have expressed unreserved support for the campaign for the United Kingdom to remain within the European Union following the announcement of a referendum to be held on 23 June.
A letter in the Sunday Times signed by 103 vice-chancellors and published hours after Prime Minister David Cameron and 27 other EU leaders reached agreement in Brussels, argues firmly for Britain to remain.
Signed by the vice-chancellors of Oxford and Cambridge universities, and of other world-leading institutions such as Imperial College London and the London School of Economics and Political Science, states: “We urge the British public to consider the vital role the EU plays in supporting our world-class universities.
“Inside the EU, we are better able to collaborate with partners from across Europe to carry out cutting edge research, from medical and healthcare advances, to new materials, products and services. In the EU, the UK is also a more attractive destination for global talent, ensuring that our students are taught by the best minds from across Europe. This has a direct impact on our economy, driving growth, generating jobs and ultimately improving people’s lives.”
The vice-chancellors concede that UK universities could survive outside the EU, but they warn that “leaving would mean cutting ourselves off from unique support and established networks and would undermine the UK’s position as a global leader in science, arts and innovation”.
Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, said: “Inside the EU, our outstanding British universities are even stronger. EU membership enhances university research and education which, in turn, benefits British people.
“The evidence shows that our universities will be significantly stronger and more effective if we stay in the EU. British students benefit from being taught by the best minds from across Europe. Membership of the EU is good for our universities and good for the science and research that improves people’s lives.
“Outside the EU, we risk cutting ourselves off from unique support and networks and undermining the UK’s position as a global leader in science and innovation.”
Last weekend, just before his higher profile brother Boris ended weeks of speculation by joining the campaign to leave the EU, Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson tweeted: “UK unis and our superb science base key to our future as a knowledge economy – much stronger inside EU.”
Pro-EU campaign group Universities for Europe calculates that students from other EU countries generate around £2.27 billion (US$3.2 billion) for the UK economy, and support 19,000 British jobs.
Academics and researchers have benefited from the EU’s free mobility arrangements – 15% of academic staff at UK universities are from other EU countries. UK students are increasingly taking advantage of the multilateral arrangements under which they have the status of 'home' students in other EU states, often paying far lower fees than if they had remained in the UK, and often paying no fees at all.
More than 125,000 EU students are currently studying at UK universities and paying home student fees. Were the UK to leave the EU without negotiating a replacement reciprocal arrangement, the competitive advantage over other destination nations – particularly the United States – would be lost.
Cross-border research collaboration is a less clear-cut issue. While UK participation in EU programmes such as the Framework Programmes would be subject to negotiation if the UK was to leave, bilateral co-operation would be less likely to be directly affected.
Sajid Javid, who as Business Secretary has overall responsibility for higher education, was one of the surprises when Cabinet members exercised their right to campaign for the decision of their choice in a departure from collective responsibility, by stating he will support the remain campaign.
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