103 university leaders have ‘grave’ fears over Brexit

Days before the United Kingdom's EU referendum vote, vice-chancellors of 103 universities wrote a joint letter voicing their “grave concern” over the impact of a UK exit from the European Union on UK universities and students, warning that it would undermine the country’s position as a global leader in science and innovation and “impoverish our campuses”.

The signatories included the heads of Oxford, Cambridge and all of the UK universities in the top 50 world rankings.

In the letter, published in the Independent, they warned that losing EU membership would have a negative impact on universities' contribution to science and their resources.

“Inside the EU, we are better able to work collaboratively on ground-breaking research in areas from cancer to climate change. EU membership supports British universities to attract the brightest and best minds from across Europe, enhancing university research and teaching and contributing to economic growth,” they said.

“Voluntarily cutting ourselves out of the world’s largest economic bloc would undermine our position as a global leader in science and innovation, impoverish our campuses and limit opportunities for British people.”

The university leaders warned that the impact of universities on their local communities and economy should not be underestimated.

“Every year, universities generate over £73 billion [US$107 billion] for the UK economy – £3.7 billion of which is generated by students from EU countries, while supporting nearly 380,000 jobs. Strong universities benefit the British people – creating employable graduates and cutting-edge research discoveries that improve lives,” they said.

“We believe that leaving Europe would create a difficult environment for the long-term investment in higher education and research that is necessary for the UK to maintain its position as a highly skilled and a globally competitive knowledge economy,” they added.

The signatories included the leaders of the top five universities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-16: Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor, University of Cambridge; Professor Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor, University of Oxford; Professor Michael Arthur, president and provost, University College London; Professor Alice Gast, president, Imperial College London; and Professor Craig Calhoun, director, London School of Economics and Political Science.

“For us it is crystal clear that our outstanding universities – and our students – are stronger in Europe,” they said.

However, writing in University World News, Chris Bickerton, a lecturer in politics at the University of Cambridge, and Lee Jones, a senior lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London, said suggesting that leaving the EU would end scientific collaboration with European partners is to assume that European researchers will not find ways to work with one another.

“This entirely ignores the history of scientific collaboration, where even dramatic obstacles such as war did not deter people from working with one another to learn more about the world. Where is the faith in the internationalism of scientific research in today’s scientific community?,” they said.

Universities enriched

On Monday, Jo Johnson, minister for universities and science, highlighted what was at stake for universities when he said in addition to the UK’s disproportionate success in winning EU research funding, the benefits of the EU to students and academics came from the collaborations, partnerships and networks it supports.

He said in an article in The Guardian that currently around 150,000 EU students are studying in the UK and more than 200,000 British students have broadened their horizons and improved their job prospects through the Erasmus exchange programme, and many others had ventured across the continent as part of a language course or in pursuit of research careers.

“All these opportunities, underpinned by our membership of the EU, enrich our universities and ensure Britain remains a magnet for the brightest and best minds,” he said.

The vice-chancellors' body, Universities UK, led universities on a final push before the referendum to encourage as many students as possible to go out and vote.

The potential damage that a 'leave' vote could have on the recruitment of international students was underlined in a survey of 44,000 prospective international students, published last month by Hobsons, the education consultancy. It found that 82% of EU students would consider the UK less attractive if the country voted to leave (35% of non-EU students also said they would find the UK less attractive).

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 240,767 international students came to the UK in 2014-15. Of these, 60,955 were EU and 179,812 were non-EU students. The survey found that 113,116 international students – 50,056 from the EU and 63,060 non-EU students – could be at risk of being deterred from studying in the UK.

It warned that the loss of 35% of non-EU international students coming to the UK could have a “very significant financial impact” for UK universities.

Using conservative estimates of average fees paid by undergraduate and postgraduate international students, the ‘at risk’ income from fees alone would exceed £690 million per annum. But when taking into account the indirect contributions of international students to UK universities and national and regional economies, the economic impact would be “far higher”, the survey said.