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Europe, universities and the British people: 5 reasons why EU membership matters

12 October 2015
EU and union flags
We know that a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union will take place before the end of 2017, with many commentators predicting a referendum in autumn 2016. Today (Monday 12th October 2015) the campaign moves up a gear as the national IN campaign launches with the aim of securing Britain’s future in Europe.

University leaders have made clear that they are committed to being a significant pro-European voice in the referendum debate. Why? Because the UK’s membership of the European Union makes our outstanding universities even stronger. In turn, strong universities benefit the British people.

Here are five reasons why EU membership matters:


1) The European Union supports British universit​​ies to pursue cutting-edge research leading to discoveries and inventions which improve people’s lives

Collaboration is crucial to generating world-class research. Multiple perspectives, complementary expertise and diverse approaches to problem-solving are the ingredients necessary for confronting the complex, inter-disciplinary and global challenges we face today.

The EU plays a vital role in supporting universities to collaborate across borders. By providing a single framework for collaboration, the EU reduces the bureaucracy associated with bringing together players from different countries, all with their own rules and regulations to comply with. In the words of one respondent to the UK Government’s Review of the Balance of Competences on Research and Development, EU research ‘offers a substantial simplification: institutions do not need to negotiate and re-negotiate the terms of collaborations every single time, as they do with other funding sources’.

Through establishing and nurturing networks of excellence, the EU helps bring together talent regardless of nationality, encouraging innovative approaches and ideas, and solutions which are applicable beyond national borders. De Montfort University are part of the European research project DOREMI, which is developing a fitness tracker and trainer specifically designed for an ageing population. Keeping the elderly socially active, eating healthy and doing exercise can prevent the early onset of disease. The project team consists of universities and companies from the UK, Austria, Belgium, Italy and Spain with complementary skills in the areas of technology, psychology and healthcare. The cultural mix of the team ensures that the fitness tracker and trainer are designed to meet the needs of Europe’s population at large and not just a single country.

Through enabling the pooling of resource, expertise, data and infrastructure, the EU allows individual researchers to achieve together what they could not do alone.  EuroCoord is an EU funded network of some of the best HIV research projects and collaborations in Europe which aims to improve the management and lives of individuals infected with HIV. This pan-European network allows British universities to conduct research on an amazing wealth of international data and to share skills and knowledge with excellent scientists across Europe to achieve medical advances that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.  Collaborative research enhances the excellence of UK research, and allows us to achieve scale, with the result that Europe can develop major centres of excellence and large-scale infrastructure, such as the European Transonic Wind Tunnel, and compete with major players such as the USA.


​​2) The European Union supports British universities to grow businesses and create jobs

Universities are important contributors to the UK economy, contributing over £73 billion – or 2.8% of all GDP – annually. This contribution is supported and enhanced by the EU.  With EU support, UK universities help turn ideas and research discoveries into new companies, generating local growth and jobs. For example, the University of Ulster’s Nanotechnology and Integrated Bioengineering Centre, which received £1.6m of European Regional Development Funding in 1996, has now generated 25 patents and three high-value spin-out companies in medical sensors and electro-stimulation devices. Together these companies are valued at almost £100m with over 150 skilled employees and produce medical innovations which have a global impact on health costs and people’s lives.

Professor Sir Konstantin Novosolev came to the University of Manchester through an EU project, where he was later to co-discover the ‘miracle material’ Graphene. It is now estimated that Graphene’s share of the global market will be more than £250m by 2024.

With EU support, UK universities also foster entrepreneurship and employability both on and off campus. Plymouth University is a partner in the EU ‘Unlocking Potential’ programme which has been supporting people to develop and businesses to grow for over ten years. So far it has helped to create over 1300 graduate level jobs in over 800 businesses through skills training, placements and a dedicated recruitment platform.


3) The EU makes it easier for UK universities to attract talented stud​​​ents and staff who contribute significantly to university teaching and research and benefit the UK economy

We’re also stronger IN because being in the EU makes it easier for universities to attract some of the world’s most talented people to come to the UK and contribute to the UK’s cultural and academic life, world-class research system and international orientation – strengthening our society and economy in the process.

15% of the UK academic workforce, responsible for UK universities’ world-class reputation  come from other European countries. Among them are some of the most productive researchers in the UK. Over half of the European Research Council’s prestigious Consolidator grants awarded to staff at UK universities in 2014 went to went to EU academics.

EU students also make an enormous contribution to the UK, helping to create an international environment for UK students and contributing to the local community, and local growth. In 2011/12 (the last year for which data is available), EU students’ spending generated £2.27 billion for the UK economy and 19,000 British jobs in local communities.  Many former students (including the President of Portugal and the Prime Minister of Malta) also go on to positions of leadership in their home countries, enhancing the UK’s diplomatic and commercial links in the process.

In order to compete in a global economy increasingly centred around higher-level skills, putting up barriers to attracting and retaining talent is a short-sighted move with the potential to impact the UK’s global reputation, relevance and clout.


4) The​​​ European Union helps universities to provide more life-changing opportunities for British students and staff

The EU doesn’t just attract bright and talented people to come to the UK – it provides opportunities for British people to widen their horizons, enhance their opportunities and increase their understanding of other peoples and cultures.

Over 200,000 UK students and 20,000 UK university staff have spent time abroad through the Erasmus exchange programme, enhancing their employability in the process.  Students who have pursued an Erasmus work or study placement have been shown to be 50% less likely to experience long-term unemployment, and more likely to start their own business.

The Erasmus programme is the single largest source of funding for UK students hoping to study or work abroad. It is a UK Government priority to increase the number of UK students gaining international experience because it equips them with the knowledge and skills they, and the UK, need to succeed. We are competing in a global knowledge economy and the UK needs individuals who are adaptable, mobile and who understand how to interact with people from all over the world.

Over 3, 500 researchers have also been supported by the EU to hone their skills abroad, boosting the profile of UK research. This matters because international connections and collaboration are crucial for excellent research. Mobile researchers have been shown to be more productive than their counterparts who stayed at home, and research done internationally has more impact than research done at a national level.

Beyond economic considerations, connections between people enhance international understanding and contribute to prosperity and stability. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the European Union and one too often forgotten is its role in ensuring peace in Europe for the longest continuous period in the region’s history.


​​5) The EU provides vital funding to the UK’s most talented researchers, supporting their work in areas from disaster prevention to 

curing cancer.

Thanks to the excellence of UK research, the UK accessed over 20% of grants allocated by the prestigious European Research Council which exists to reward and encourage academic excellence. In fact, the UK benefits disproportionately from EU research funding in general, receiving 15.5% (almost €7 billion) of the funding allocated under the last programme. (Only the Netherlands accessed a greater proportion, relative to population and GDP).

The proportion of the UK higher education sector’s income that comes from EU sources is growing. In 2013/14 alone, the UK received £687m of research income from the EU. This is particularly important at a time when national investment in science and research is static. The UK Government currently only invests 0.55% of GDP in research and higher education while the average among other advanced countries is 0.8%. What’s more national budgetary constraints mean the outlook for growth is limited, despite the excellent arguments for prioritising spending in this area. Arguments for the value of the EU for universities, of course, extend far beyond the money – but the high levels of support that individual UK researchers and UK universities receive from the EU for collaborative projects and vital work with industry partners helps make the UK’s excellent institutions even stronger, with knock-on benefits for the economy, society and individuals in the UK.

Join the Universities for Europe campaign. 

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