The starting gun is fired on Britain’s EU referendum

So there’s a date! The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has declared that the referendum will be held on 23 June. At that moment the British people will choose whether to confirm or renounce the United Kingdom’s 40-year-old membership of the European Union.

This marks a turning point in the referendum process. The EU-level bargaining is done. The initiatives are no longer with senior figures in government and technocrats bargaining over the terminology of a protocol or phrase in the conclusions of the European Council. Voters are now centre stage.

The campaigns have an interest in pitching the referendum around the big issue for the future of the country and, like all historic decisions, a moment of self-definition for individuals.

The university sector has been pro-EU from the start, both organisationally through Universities UK, representing UK university leadership, and though grassroots movements.

The most newsworthy example, Scientists for EU, quickly made a name for itself in assembling a large and impressive array of scientists and in producing detailed evidence on why a significant amount of science research needs to be international and how effectively the EU infrastructure has operated.

The leadership of the UK higher education sector has moved rapidly into the new phase launched by David Cameron. Within 24 hours of the referendum announcement, an open letter signed by more than 100 vice-chancellors of UK universities had been published in a leading Sunday newspaper.

They highlighted the positive impact of universities “on our economy, driving growth, generating jobs, and ultimately improving people’s lives”. Their letter urged “the British public to consider the vital role the EU plays in supporting our world-class universities”.

Professor Michael Arthur, president and provost of University College London, is the latest university big beast to highlight the potentially harmful effects of a Brexit on the UK’s higher education sector. “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,” he says.

From history to social sciences

Disciplinary groups with a European commitment are being energised, and also face opposing groups. Historians are trying to follow where Scientists for EU have led. Historians for Britain in Europe have had letters published in The Times and Le Monde challenging Historians for Britain, launched by Dr David Starkey, constitutional historian and TV personality in support of the ‘out’ campaign.

Social sciences and others are taking the first steps to create a European Association for Social Sciences and the Humanities.

Also very evident are the growing numbers of what Mike Galsworthy, co-founder of the movement Scientists for EU, described as “an agile swarm of passionate activist communities that can run rings around a top-down Westminster-based operation and engage voters whom politicians cannot reach”. The Scientists for EU website lists over 30 pro-EU groups with links to academia and the student world.

European stakeholders are also pitching in, which is new. The board of the European Students' Union, representing 11 million students, has approved by an overwhelming majority a motion from the UK National Union of Students for the UK to remain part of Europe.

Professor Rolf Tarrach, president of the European University Association, with adherents in 47 countries, has written powerfully on the theme of “there’s no great future for either a Europe without the UK or a UK outside Europe”.

As he puts it: “Universities are essential to our future. A united European knowledge society [is] a major source of wisdom and savoir faire for the whole planet; a split Europe would cut a pathetic figure... We continental Europeans, who share most British values, ask the UK to concentrate its powers on contributing to a better, more British Europe: not to a less European Britain.”

This is all a major contrast to the general political rancour and alarm about the EU as played out in the UK media.

As I reported in January, higher education and research have an upbeat story to tell about the benefits of being part of the EU and the Bologna Process.

UK universities, and individual researchers who work in the UK, do well by many measures: in global league tables and in winning research funds from the EU through Horizon 2020 and the European Research Council, through the Erasmus+ programme and through the various strands of the cohesion programme. Nearly all these activities take place within a collaborative and multinational frame.

But naturally there is a Brexit counter rhetoric. The 'Leave' campaigns have claimed that a Brexit would benefit higher education and research; and that there is an alternative in making direct links where wanted and in looking more globally. Few in the research and higher education worlds appear to believe that this could be easy, cheap or convincing.

Immediately after the prime minister’s announcement, the Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson tweeted: “UK univs and our superb science base key to our future as a knowledge economy – much stronger inside EU.”

The referendum campaign has made a real difference in terms of the way higher education and research are on the public agenda. In opening up to political scrutiny matters often considered as of professional interest, the 'Remain' side looks as if it has succeeded in reframing ideas about how knowledge is produced.

It demonstrates that in a knowledge economy much activity is embedded in multinational and multicultural structures. Europe may not be the only way to do this. But at the moment it seems to most in the sector to be the best.

Getting out the vote

Now as the issue becomes one of getting out the vote, universities are promising to play a role to make the debate an informed one. Students are an important constituency.

At the moment one form of student activity is causing alarm in British universities. There has been a rash of incidents at UK universities in which organised student groups have been refusing a platform to those they dislike – an attitude at odds with a university’s foundational principles to increase understanding and to respect academic freedom.

However, data on education, social class and political choice suggests that students are highly likely to be pro-EU. A recent survey confirms that 70% would be likely to vote for 'Remain', although many confess their ignorance, even their indecision as to whether to vote.

There is more to be done to show how Europe – or a Brexit alternative – is meaningful in everyday higher education and the coming weeks will test the creativity of those who will vote 'Remain' and the determination of the Brexit groups.

Personally, I have set myself a little exercise. I need to do the graphic of the institutional hubs at national and European level with which I interact as a researcher with an interest in European higher education policy, and those networks in which so many nationalities are represented in working towards some common ends.

It’s an ongoing lesson about the history and geography and cultures of Europe and beyond, and an endless source of insight for me at least as to why the referendum matters.

Dr Anne Corbett is an associate at LSE Enterprise. She was convenor of the hearing on Research and Higher Education, LSE Commission on the Future of Britain in Europe, and is the author of Universities and the Europe of Knowledge: Ideas, institutions and policy entrepreneurship in European Union higher education policy, 1955-2005, (Palgrave 2005). This post represents the views of the author and not those of the London School of Economics and Political Science, or LSE.