Behind the steel spire atop St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast rises a modern structure of gleaming glass and steel. Ulster University is building a new campus right in the heart of Northern Ireland’s capital city. The university, once known only as an access-focused regional institution with a predominant emphasis on preprofessional degree programs, now boasts an excellent business school, a top-tier school of pharmacy and an eye-catching urban campus devoted to the arts.
Ulster University is emblematic of a resurgence of Northern Ireland: once mired in sectarian conflict, Belfast and its environs are now destinations for both tourists and foreign investors. Much of the rise of this country of 1.8 million is due to extraordinary investment from the European Union -- investment that could soon end. Northern Ireland, like England, Scotland and Wales, is a constituent country of the United Kingdom and will take part in a referendum on continued membership in the E.U. this Thursday, June 23.
Polls on the potential British exit, or Brexit, have shown both sides running neck and neck, and the stakes could not be higher for Ulster and other universities in the United Kingdom. In fact, the results could also have a significant impact on American colleges and universities, as well.
British membership in the European Union has been exceptionally lucrative for Ulster University. The university received around 9.4 million pounds ($13.4 million) last year in E.U. funding. More than 1,700 students and around 400 scholars from other E.U. member states attend, teach and research at the university in some capacity. Its location around 45 minutes from the Irish border and only two hours from Dublin makes it a common collaborator with major universities to the south. The university’s Nanotechnology and Integrated Bioengineering Center, which was funded by a £1.6 million grant from the E.U., has generated 25 patents and three spin-off companies that are now valued at over $100 million.
Ulster, however, isn’t the only university in the United Kingdom receiving benefits from Britain’s E.U. membership. Higher education institutions received 16 percent of total E.U. research funding totaling £687 million ($1 billion) in 2013-14. People from other E.U. nations make up 15 percent of the academic workforce and 5 percent of the student bodies at British universities. Given the sheer impact of European support for universities in the U.K., it should come as no surprise that Ulster Vice Chancellor Paddy Nixon joined 102 university leaders, including vice chancellors from Oxford and Cambridge and the president of the London School of Economics, in an open letter in the Sunday Times expressing support for the European Union.
This expression of political support is emblematic of a change in university behavior. While university leaders chose to stay relatively silent on the two other recent major electoral events -- the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the 2015 general election -- they emphatically support the campaign to remain in the E.U.
Other major players include former London Mayor Boris Johnson, former Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove and other right-wing members of the Conservative party. The majority of Parliament, including Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn and leaders of most of the minor parties, all support continued membership in the European Union. Cameron and Osborne represent the moderate wing of the Conservative party -- constantly at odds with Gove, Johnson and the party’s right wing.
Brexit was a major political issue in the last general election, and leave campaigners argue that far-right Conservative gains in Parliament were a popular mandate for Brexit. Moderate Conservatives worked hard to renegotiate Britain’s responsibilities within the E.U. and believe that remaining in the European Union will be good for the United Kingdom. It should come as no surprise that both sides disagree on the impact Brexit would have on British universities.
The leave campaign argues that the European Union funds only 3 percent of all U.K. R&D spending and that money saved from not having to pay fees associated with E.U. membership could allow the U.K. government to expand domestic financial support for research. Furthermore, universities in nations outside of the E.U. are still able to apply for research funding; leave campaigners suggest that wouldn’t change.
Leave supporters also believe that, when it comes to U.K. universities’ ability to attract talented European faculty, a U.K. immigration policy absent of E.U. agreements on free movement of people could be devised in such a way that it would privilege scholars from other European countries traveling to Britain. Outside of the E.U., universities could raise fees on E.U. students, an action currently prohibited by E.U. laws that state universities in a given country must treat students from that country and other students from E.U. member states equally. There are also not enough spaces at universities to meet current demand. Leave campaigners argue that filling admissions spaces with domestic students could offset any drop in the E.U. student population.
University leaders and the remain campaign don’t agree. They note that a rise in E.U. student fees coupled with presumably more stringent immigration controls would result in an extremely decreased E.U. student population, as polls of E.U. students show that 80 percent would be less likely to pursue education in the U.K. E.U. students are some of the highest achieving in the U.K. system and are more likely than their British counterparts to pursue graduate degrees in the U.K. Brexit would raise fees on these students, limiting access to U.K. universities and potentially reducing overall institutional quality. It would also limit domestic student interaction with students from other countries. U.K. universities would become increasingly insular and homogenous in their student bodies as American competitors seek greater and greater diversity in their student populations.
Leaving the E.U., remain supporters argue, would also mean closing access to the Erasmus exchange program that allows students from E.U. member states to study in another member country as part of their academic program, further closing U.K. student engagement with their European counterparts. Students may also face adverse outcomes upon graduation should Brexit hurt Britain’s economy and job market. Leaders also fear that highly talented European academics seeking faculty or postdoc positions in the U.K. may seek positions elsewhere as uncertainty regarding their immigration and employment status over the next few years would grow exponentially in the days after a vote to leave. While long-term immigration reform might have some benefits, Brexit would decimate universities’ ability to recruit new faculty in the short term. Lastly, the remain campaign is quick to point out that, while U.K. contributions make up 11 percent of the total E.U. research budget, U.K. institutions receive more than 16 percent of total research grant funding.
What’s often overlooked in the debate between the leave and remain campaigns, however, is that if Britons vote to leave, there will be implications for American universities and students, as well. American universities might be the beneficiaries of Brexit when it comes to faculty recruitment. While emigrating to the United States might be difficult for European scholars when compared to an E.U.-member United Kingdom, stricter immigration controls in the U.K. may make the United States a more desirable location.
Furthermore, around 50,000 Americans study in the United Kingdom each year. A common language and history make the U.K. a top destination for American students, and neither will change with Brexit. The same could be said, however, for Ireland, an E.U. member with no plans on leaving any time soon. Google and other major American tech companies have built their European headquarters in Dublin, and if Brexit happens, many believe American companies with a major presence in London could move their operations across the Irish Sea to Dublin and into other major continental financial centers like Frankfurt and Luxembourg. Students who would have gone to the U.K. to study and intern in finance for a semester or two might soon find themselves more attracted to Ireland.
While American universities may be able to get their pick of scholars in the exodus of European faculty from British institutions that would follow Brexit, and American students may not recognize a tremendous difference between studying abroad in Dublin as compared to Edinburgh or London, the greatest influence Brexit could have on American universities is indirect, but hugely impactful. Most economist agree that a vote to leave would cause a British recession, at least in the short term, with some even saying the vote could trigger a global recession. David Cameron even warned that voting for Brexit would be like putting a bomb under the U.K. economy. For those American universities that are not in a position to compete for top European faculty or send students abroad, global volatility in the markets could cause significant damage to meager endowments and hurt fund-raising.
The cost of Brexit, therefore, is too high. Elite American universities would receive meager benefits, but the rest of the American higher education landscape could feel the effects of a recession too soon after emerging from the financial crisis of 2008. British universities will lose a major source of research funding, faculty and high-quality students. British students will feel the pinch of higher tuition and fees during a period of economic downturn. Brexit has the potential to significantly slow the growth of higher education at home and abroad and offers few benefits to postsecondary institutions on both sides of the Atlantic.
Along the banks of the River Foyle at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic lies Derry. The walled city is home to a branch campus of Ulster University, and on June 9, the campus hosted two former prime ministers to talk about the potential ramifications of Brexit. Tony Blair and John Major both warned against leaving the European Union, saying it would effectively close off access to the border with the Republic. What neither gentleman noted, however, is that voting to leave the European Union would also effectively cut off access to research funding, high-quality international students and stellar faculty. University students, faculty and staff overwhelmingly support the remain campaign. One can only hope that they turn out to vote in two days’ time. Their universities are counting on them.
Christopher R. Marsicano is a Ph.D. candidate in leadership and policy studies with a focus in higher education policy at Vanderbilt University.