Brexit and the Academy

British citizens vote in a referendum on the U.K.'s continued membership in the E.U. Thursday. What's at stake for higher education?

June 22, 2016

As British citizens prepare to go to the polls on Thursday to vote on a possible departure from the European Union, the vast majority of academics report plans to vote to remain in the E.U. The association of university heads, Universities UK, has taken a lead in lobbying against leaving the E.U. -- which is nicknamed Brexit -- arguing that British universities are stronger inside it: the organization cites statistics showing that 5 percent of students at U.K. universities, and 15 percent of academic staff, come from other E.U. countries. A Universities UK analysis found that the country’s universities received more than 836 million pounds (more than $1.2 billion) in E.U. research grants and contracts in 2014-15, representing 14.2 percent of all U.K. income from research grants and contracts that year.

About 100 U.K. university vice chancellors signed a letter published by The Independent on Tuesday expressing concern about the impact of a vote for Brexit on universities and students. The letter argues that membership in the E.U. helps enable research collaborations and "supports British universities to attract the brightest and best minds from across Europe, enhancing university research and teaching and contributing to economic growth."

"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," they wrote.

Continued access to top researcher and student talent and to E.U. research funding programs are two of the main issues potentially at stake for the higher education sector in Thursday’s vote. Such issues represent one small slice of the broader debate about E.U. membership, which has centered largely on the leave campaigners’ concerns about perceived E.U. intrusions on U.K. sovereignty and a need to control immigration, and the remainers’ arguments that leaving the E.U. would damage the economy and Great Britain’s stature in the world.

Youth turnout -- including student turnout -- is expected to be key to the outcome of the vote. Polling from YouGov suggests that voters aged 18-39 lean heavily toward remaining in the union but are among the demographic groups that are least likely to vote. Support for staying in the union is also linked to education level: university-educated voters favor remaining in the union by nearly a two-to-one margin, while non-university-educated voters favor leaving.

Another YouGov poll shows that voters who intend to vote leave are much less likely than those who plan to vote remain to trust claims and statements made about the referendum by academics. It's partly for that reason that Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King's College London, wishes Universities UK would have remained neutral on the referendum, which touches on issues far beyond higher education.

"You have the official body of universities out there campaigning, then it’s an easy impression to give that academics are all biased," said Menon, who directs the UK in a Changing Europe Initiative, which seeks to provide authoritative and nonpartisan information and analysis on E.U.-U.K. relations.


A group of scientists campaigning for continued E.U. membership, Scientists for EU, identifies three main risks to U.K. science in the event of a Brexit vote: people, policy and participation.

“Currently, we can hire effortlessly from a population of 500 [million] in our continent. If we canceled freedom of movement with the E.U., then we would be hiring from our neighborhood in the same manner we do from the rest of the world,” the group says on its website.

“Suddenly free flow of talent and easy collaboration would be replaced by the uncertain, stressful and costly red tape of the Home Office.” (The Home Office is the U.K. ministry with responsibility for immigration.)

As for the other two P-words, policy and participation, the group argues that by leaving the E.U. the U.K. would give up its input into shaping policy for the continent’s science programs. And its very participation in those programs could be at risk. Although some non-E.U. countries like Israel, Norway and Switzerland have negotiated participation as associated countries in E.U. research programs, Scientists for EU stresses that’s “never an entitlement, it’s negotiated.” As proof that it's not an entitlement, the group cites the experience of Switzerland, which saw its participation in E.U. research programs restricted after the passage of a 2014 referendum limiting immigration.

Switzerland is now “partially” associated to the massive E.U. Horizon 2020 research program, meaning Swiss researchers can receive direct E.U. funding for the first of the program’s three pillars (“excellent science”) but not the second and third. The current agreement allowing for partial association lasts only through the end of the year. Switzerland’s level of participation in the program after that point is contingent on it ratifying a protocol extending free movement to the people of Croatia, the newest of the 28 E.U. member states. (The process of ratifying that protocol is underway.)

A House of Lords report from April on E.U. science and the U.K. quotes Mike Galsworthy, the program director for Scientists for EU, suggesting that the restrictions on the participation of Swiss researchers in E.U. research programs should be viewed as a potential precedent for how the U.K. could be treated in the event of a Brexit.

“Given that, on Brexit, we would most likely adopt a model that goes back on, or cancels, our freedom of movement arrangements with the E.U., the real risk is that Switzerland is a strong precedent for the model that would be used for us,” the report quotes Galsworthy as saying.

But Christopher Leigh, a spokesman for Scientists for Britain, which in its words seeks to “counter the political narrative of many pro-E.U. commentators that U.K. science would suffer undue hardship in the event of the U.K. leaving the political structures of the E.U.,” observed that there are two routes to Horizon 2020 participation established in Article 7 of the regulations establishing the program. “The first (European Free Trade Association option) would involve free movement, but the second (E.U. Neighborhood Policy) does not, and this is reflected in the participation of Israel, Tunisia, Georgia and Armenia -- none of which have been required to agree to free movement,” he said in an email interview.

Leigh said that in the event of a Brexit it would be up to the U.K. government “to negotiate in the best interests of the U.K. science community, but also in a way that reflects the concerns of the wider population.” And he described as worrisome the E.U.’s punishment of Swiss science as a result of a citizen vote on immigration.

“My own view is that science should be above politics, and I'm concerned that the E.U. should be attempting to withdraw scientific cooperation in response to the democratic, and domestic, decision of the Swiss people,” Leigh said. “I worry where this might lead to in the future, and it should be of great concern to all scientists.”

Apart from participation in E.U. research programs, a policy issue that has been raised is the role of E.U.-wide scientific regulations. Leigh highlighted the benefit of U.K. science being relieved from “ill-thought-out and burdensome” E.U. regulations, including a regulation concerning clinical trials, which was singled out for discussion in the April House of Lords report. Over all that report found strong support on the part of U.K. scientists for E.U. membership.

"While the U.K. science community was enthusiastic about E.U. membership, we have uncovered some qualifications," the report states. "We heard mixed views on the impact of E.U. regulations. The benefits of harmonization were widely recognized but some specific areas, such as genetic modification and clinical trials, were highlighted as causing U.K. business and research to be disadvantaged compared to competitors outside the E.U."

The report notes that a new clinical trials regulation has been developed and is expected to come into effect in 2017.

Student Mobility

Currently the 5 percent of students from other E.U. countries at U.K. universities are treated just as British students are: they pay the same tuition rate and are able to access the same student loan system.

Tuition rates vary across the four countries in the U.K. but are highest in England, where undergraduate tuition rates for domestic and E.U. students are capped at £9,000 (about $13,186). This sum is already substantially higher than tuition rates throughout the rest of Europe, but rates for international students from outside the E.U. are higher still. How many E.U. students could be deterred from attending U.K. universities if they were charged higher international student tuition fees is an open question.

Leaving the E.U. also could call into question future participation in Erasmus+, an E.U. program that funds short-term study and work exchanges across the continent. As in the case with the E.U. research schemes, some non-E.U. countries -- the Republic of Macedonia, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Turkey -- have successfully negotiated full participation in the Erasmus+ program, so there's reason to think a U.K. outside the E.U. potentially could as well.

Syada Dastagir, a Ph.D. student in Japanese cultural studies at the University of London's Birkbeck college, did an Erasmus-funded exchange in France while an undergraduate at Wales's Bangor University, where she studied French literature and film. She is a spokeswoman for the group Students for Europe, which describes Thursday's referendum as the "most important vote of our generation."

“I’ve had such a personal experience with Erasmus, seeing the ease with which we were able to work or study or live anywhere in the E.U. Not just those in the French department, those in the German, Spanish, Italian department. Literally the world is their oyster, or Europe is their oyster.”

“We should be encouraging that, we should be fostering that. We’re already an island nation, a tiny island nation where languages have been so undervalued in our education system for so many years,” Dastagir said.

The Bottom Line

Menon, of the UK in a Changing World Initiative, said that the effects of a possible Brexit on higher education are difficult to foretell with any certainty. He's unconvinced by arguments that U.K. academics are likely to find themselves totally cut off from E.U. research programs -- "Some of the best scientists in the E.U. are based in Britain; why would they not want to work with us?" he asks -- and he echoed the point that non-E.U. states have successfully negotiated full participation in E.U. programs like Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+. But he stressed that everything hinges on such negotiations.

"Ultimately the answer to what happens after we leave is, it depends," Menon said. "We don’t know what our deal might look like with the European Union after we leave."


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