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In or out? Only one answer makes sense for higher education

Professor David Greenaway

Vice-Chancellor
University of Nottingham
Enterprise Centre is one of the lowest carbon buildings on any university campus in Europe

On the eve of the EU referendum, Professor Sir David Greenaway, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, says it is worth reflecting on what EU membership means for the UK – and what a decision to leave would mean for many walks of life, including universities. 

Brexit and higher education

Once upon a time I was a jobbing economist. Among other things, I worked on the European Union. In 1996, I wrote about what a bad idea it would be for the UK to join the Eurozone, but I have also worked on the positive impact of the EU on inward investment to the UK, so I think I understand the economic arguments being made by both the Remain and Leave camps. 

But I will not comment too much on those. To begin with, it all depends on assumptions we make about which trading arrangements will prevail should we exit, although I can professionally assess those. 

But – and this is my second reason ­– I do not wish to be perceived as trying to influence how students and staff vote on the basis of assumptions I make about life outside the EU.

However, on the narrower issue of higher education, commenting on the impact of remain versus exit is more straightforward. 

We know a great deal about the EU's impact on higher education. So I am more comfortable discussing this – indeed I feel I have some responsibility to say something.   

But I do so in a personal capacity, not on behalf of the University of Nottingham and I fully understand that even if I argue that EU membership brings net benefits to UK higher education (which I will) there are many more considerations others will wish to bring in to play.

There are lots of "singles" in the European Union: for example, the single currency, which I think is unsustainable; and the single European market, which works well. 

For some purposes, there is also a single European education area which, from my perspective, works very well indeed. 

We live in a highly globalised world, and that brings many benefits, including to higher education. Greater movement of ideas and people across borders is to be welcomed. Exposing students to new cultures, new ways of doing things and new ways of thinking not only enriches personal development; it enhances employability. 

The number of students studying outside their country of domicile has more than doubled to four million in about a generation, for several reasons. One is mobility schemes that just make it easier. 

Erasmus programmes have done that, and Nottingham has almost 500 students benefitting from them – the most of any UK institution. Of course, were we outside the EU, we might find other ways of giving these students a mobility opportunity, but it would require new vehicles and new funding sources. 

We want our young people to have these experiences to expand their cultural horizons, but also because it supports them in the labour market. Specifically, students who did an Erasmus placement have been shown to be 50% less likely to experience long-term unemployment.  

Our university community is significantly enriched by the 2,200 EU students living and learning at Nottingham. 

Additionally, according to a Universities UK report released in April, students from the EU studying in our region's universities generated £143m a year for the East Midlands economy. While nobody can be entirely sure what impact the outcome of the referendum will have on the number of EU students studying in the UK, it is entirely reasonable to emphasise the significant contribution they make to our society. 

Research and knowledge exchange 

Talent development is one strand of our core business; the other is research and knowledge exchange (RKE). In my 40-plus years in higher education, I have not met many academics who think international cooperation and collaboration is not good for RKE. 

We have many international platforms and collaborations. In general, to be effective, they need to be resourced. 

The EU has invested in this at scale: though its Framework Programmes; Horizon 2020; the European Research Council; and knowledge and innovation networks (and many other schemes). For Nottingham, this has amounted to funding of £44m since 2012-2013 and supports about 15% of our annual research grants. 

For the UK as a whole, it represents £687m of research income annually and is an area where our excellence as a sector means we do disproportionately well compared to other nations.  

Ideas are no respecter of borders, and if outside the EU, British academics would find ways of communicating and collaborating. 

However, I would not be optimistic about that being as well funded as at it is now. It would be naïve to assume that any rebate benefit would be spent on universities rather than schools, healthcare or social services. 

So, if the issue were only about exit and higher education, there is no argument: we would be worse off, and not just marginally so. And for a sector that adds so much to economic vitality and social progress, that is a big deal. 

Of course I could be dismissed as just ped​lling self-interest.  

However, on this I must plead guilty. As the leader of one of the UK's top universities I would be failing in my duty if I was silent on the (almost certain) harmful consequences of exit for our universities in general, and research intensive universities in particular.

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Chris Walker
Chris Walker says:
1 July 2016 at 14:53

Personally I Don't think Brexit will affect on UK's top universities, Thanks for sharing the post.