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Freedom of movement is the main road to knowledge

1 April 2015
Nigel Carrington

​By Nigel Carrington, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Arts, London.

Even in the digital age, knowledge happens because people with common interests can easily work alongside each other, wherever they come from. This open society is under attack amidst calls to leave the EU.

It has become a commonplace that knowledge and scholarship are borderless. History shows the opposite. From earliest times, societies have successfully controlled knowledge and scholars through sects, guilds, borders and mind control. Several forces are at work in the UK that could damage knowledge creation by re-introducing borders.

The most basic way to prevent the spread of knowledge is to stop people talking to each other freely. This sounds simple, but is precisely what is at issue for knowledge workers during and after the General Election 2015.

The headline grabber is the call by politicians of all stripes to restrict immigration and leave the EU. A hint of problems to come can be seen in the effects of the decision to scrap post-study work visas in the UK. This is diverting international students away from this country for the first time since such statistics have been gathered. In a large survey, the most significant reasons given for a decision not to study here were the UK's attitude towards international students, and perceived difficulties in obtaining a visa.

Leaving the EU would have a more profound effect. Around 14% of academic staff in UK universities are from the EU, contributing to the talent pool and cultural diversity of UK education. In 2012-13 there were 125,290 EU students studying in the UK - 6% of all students at UK universities. Within University of the Arts London, that figure stands at 15% of our students.

Setting aside the immediate economic benefit they bring, many of those students will go on to positions of influence in their home countries, with positive effects for the UK's soft power and trading relationships.

Alarmingly, student migration between the regions of the UK has also started to stall. Inadequate government support for maintenance grants has put subtle constraints on disadvantaged students. Because they cannot afford to leave home to study, they study locally. University catchments are shrinking both internationally and nationally.

This has a chilling effect because free movement of labour inside and beyond the UK are fundamental to the overlapping knowledge economy and creative economy.

In his independent review of the creative industries, published this week, John Woodward's third major recommendation affirmed this: "Government policy and effort need to take more account of the fact that the UK's creative industries are now part of a much bigger European and global business sector."

As numerous studies show, creativity occurs through individual patterns of movement and cultural exchanges. These bring academics and business creatives into contact with the people they need to meet at the time they need to meet them.

This is observable at local, national and international levels. Nesta's report on creative clusters and innovation in 2010 pointed out the unplanned human activity at the heart of innovative business areas. Crucial ingredients such as being near and connected to similar companies and clients: "are underpinned by a dense web of informal interactions and networking" with universities playing an important part. Similar findings have been made in the States.

The need to encourage research and knowledge by encouraging individuals to travel has not escaped policymakers in the European Union. The Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions programme is worth €6.16 billion to 2020 to fund transnational and interdisciplinary mobility for excellent researchers in any field. It also encourages mobility between academic and other sectors, especially business.

The Erasmus programme, meanwhile, has funded academic staff and student mobility for 25 years. In that time, almost three million students, 300,000 higher education teachers and other staff have gained overseas work experience. The programme has an annual budget exceeding 450 million euro; more than 4,000 higher education institutions in 33 countries belong to the network. Erasmus students do better academically, are more likely to start their own companies and are 50% less likely to experience long-term unemployment than those who have not studied or trained abroad.

This logic is so central to EU thinking that in 2008 a fifth freedom of movement was proposed for knowledge, which was particularly intended "to enhance the mobility and career prospects of researchers". As EU Commissioner Janez Potočnik said at the time, "The knowledge society of tomorrow needs the freedom, the freedom of movement of knowledge".

Those who care about knowledge need to fight for this freedom during and after this General Election, if we are to preserve an open society for those who create knowledge and intellectual property.

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