What will Brexit mean for academia?
We are less than two months away from the referendum which will decide whether or not Great Britain will remain in the EU. As the voting date comes closer, inevitably the news is becoming increasingly dominated by this issue. The same seems to be true with conversations at dinner tables. Probably a lot of our readers may no longer have an appetite to digest yet another article about Brexit. But please do bear with me as I feel that not enough has been said on how the outcome of the referendum will affect higher educational institutions in the UK. Needless to say this is a crucial issue for the Sainsbury Institute. We are affiliated to the University of East Anglia and all of our activities, in particular those which are related to education and research, are carried out in conjunction with the University.
Soon after Prime Minister David Cameron announced the date of the referendum, an open letter arguing for the UK to remain in the EU signed by Vice-Chancellors of 103 universities was published in the Sunday Times. Professor David Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of UEA and Chair of the Sainsbury Institute, was one of the signers. The core message of the letter was to argue that when making a decision on which way to vote, the public should consider the vital role that the EU plays in supporting our world class universities. So how vital is the EU for the world of British academia?
Let’s start from the notion of what universities signify in our current world. Universities are first and foremost arenas for the free exchange of ideas, and to achieve this goal the more diverse the actors, namely the academics, the students, and even the administrative workers, the better returns on research investment. Universities all over the world have a shared aspiration of being as ‘global’ as possible. That is why so much importance is placed on global rankings. British universities do very well in this respect and one strong reason is because the country is a member of the EU.
Under the aegis of the Erasmus exchange programme, which supports the movement of students within Europe, 5% of all British university students are from other EU countries. The programme also provides vast opportunities for young British students to study in European counties and also to be employed there. In terms of academia, this freedom of mobility within EU member countries greatly contributes to bringing excellent talent to the UK. As a result, one out of seven academic jobs at British universities are held by EU citizens.
If anyone feels that these jobs should go to a British person only, you are missing the point. Britain is after all a medium sized country with a population of only 60 plus million. To maintain high standards in research and teaching, it is imperative to bring in the best talent from outside of the country. Theoretically one can import more talent from non-EU countries. However with immigration rules becoming tighter and tighter each year, the UK is no longer an attractive destination for academics and international students from non-EU states. Further obstructing the flow of EU citizens would be a truly detrimental move for UK universities in both the short and longer terms. Moreover, UK universities are currently the top recipients of EU funding directed towards research projects both in the sciences and humanities. For example, looking at the top three recipients of the prestigious European Research Council funding for mid-career researchers, UK institutes of higher learning receive 1.7 billion euros, with Germany and France in second and third place. Both Cambridge University and Oxford University are the top recipients of such funding within the UK. This means that even the very best universities in this country will be cut off from a significant amount of research funding if we depart from the EU.
In a nutshell, where academia is concerned, it is difficult to find solid reasons that would justify a Brexit, and hence so many Vice-Chancellors have signed the open letter. For Japanese universities which aspire to be global, which means more students from abroad, more students going abroad, and more diversity among the academic staff, the current position that UK universities occupy is one to die for. The fate of British academia may not be the strongest reason for avoiding a Brexit but it is certainly an issue we need to keep in mind when deciding how to vote on 23 June.
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