Cameron victory raises European Union exit risk for universities

Labour’s pledge to reduce the cap on tuition fees in universities in England from £9,000 to £6,000 (US$13,900 to US$9,300) was the only higher education issue given a high profile in the UK general election.

But the unexpectedly decisive result which swept Prime Minister David Cameron back into power with a majority could have far reaching consequences for the internationalisation of universities due to his pledge to hold an in-out referendum on membership of the European Union in 2017.

The surprise election result flew in the face of weeks of predictions by opinion polls that both Tories and Labour would fail to win outright. Instead Labour took 232 seats compared to the Conservatives’ 331, down 26; and the Liberal Democrats fell from 57 seats to just eight.

However, with a tiny majority of 12 MPs, Cameron will find it very difficult to negotiate any degree of change in the terms of membership with the EU that will satisfy Eurosceptics in his own party that it could back a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum.

The stakes are high for UK universities as an EU exit and any resulting restrictions on free movement of students and researchers could immediately exclude the UK from funding from two programmes that are vital to the internationalisation of higher education and to the UK’s contribution to research.

The Erasmus programme has funded the mobility of nearly 3 million students and 300,000 academics in the past 25 years. More than 4,000 higher education institutions in 33 countries are involved in the network.

The EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, meanwhile, is providing nearly €80 billion (US$89.6 billion) of funding for research in 2014-20.

In future rounds, the UK would have to be a 'third party' member, which is allowed as part of some Horizon 2020 programmes – they include for example the US and Australia as part of a consortium – but would not be able to have the huge 'single country' programmes that UK universities currently enjoy.

In addition, close to 14% of academic staff in UK universities are from the EU and around 125,000 EU students are studying in the UK, according to 2012-13 figures.

According to an analysis for University World News by Professor Aldwyn Cooper, vice-chancellor of Regent’s University London, the question of a public referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU has caused much political disagreement, largely because of concerns over the quality of information available and allied debate.

“There is a very real danger of uninformed decision-making and outcomes that will seriously jeopardise the UK’s position in both world education and global political influence,” he said.

Universities UK statement

Following the election result, an immediate statement of intent was issued by Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body, to campaign to ensure that “the benefits of EU membership to the British people are clearly understood”.

Alistair Jarvis, director of communications and external relations for Universities UK, and Vivienne Stern, director the UK Higher Education International Unit, issued a statement on 8 May.

“We are international – but we are European first,” they said.

European universities are our most frequent research partners – with Germany, France and Italy all in the UK’s top five collaborators – and thousands of British students benefit from exchanges.

They said that, as part of the EU, UK universities are “able to make a more profound impact on many of the challenges facing the world – like climate change, disease, food and water security – than we would ever be able to make on our own”.

“We have more influence around the world as part of this network, and more impact on the rules that affect how we collaborate with our largest trade, education and research partners,” they said.

Meanwhile a group calling itself Scientists for EU, which was launched, also on 8 May, said the referendum was “of great concern to UK universities, researchers, industry scientists, engineers and innovators. UK innovation benefits greatly from EU investment and ease of movement for workers, students and families”.

The group said it had amassed 675 followers on its Facebook page in the first 24 hours.

Immigration a hot political issue

Immigration is a hot political issue in the UK, where fast rising population numbers are putting pressure on school places and National Health Service provision.

One of the reasons why the Conservative right wing is so opposed to European Union membership is the rule on mobility which makes it impossible to restrict immigration from within the EU.

By contrast the Conservatives have pledged to keep the existing cap on skilled economic migration from outside of the EU to 20,700 a year.

They are also committed to clamping down on London satellite campuses of institutions based elsewhere in the UK suggesting the potential for significant new regulation of branch campuses, according to Universities UK.

Student numbers were also a political target during the election campaign and the Conservatives are likely to seek further restrictions and reforms to the student visa, including a review of the Highly Trusted Sponsor status system and ‘new measures to tackle abuse’ and reduce the number of those who overstay student visas, Universities UK predicts.

Most controversially, their manifesto calls for full implementation of a requirement that landlords check the immigration status of tenants. This requirement is currently being piloted in the West Midlands.

Given that a significant proportion of tenants are students, this contrasts sharply with Labour’s commitment to be “welcoming to international students”, although Labour had also promised a “tightening” of the rules on student visitor visas.

Labour’s promise to cap fees in England at £6,000 instead of the current cap of £9,000 will not see the light of day, despite widespread opposition to the loading up of student debt under the outgoing Coalition government, which allowed the fee cap to triple.

The Conservatives are committed to £6.9 billion (US$10.7 billion) of capital spending on research.

Among their more interesting proposals is a framework recognising teaching excellence, which could be comparable to the Research Excellence Framework, or REF.

They have also pledged to require companies of more than 250 employees to publish the difference in pay of their male and female employees, which would have an impact on gender parity in universities.