Why the EU Matters for Our Universities


Anton Muscatelli

Professor Anton Muscatelli, Principal of the University of Glasgow, writing in a personal capacity and the views expressed do not reflect those of Policy Scotland or the University of Glasgow.  

 

Universities in Scotland and the UK benefit massively from our membership of the EU. The evidence is unequivocal.

 

Scotland’s universities receive £88.8m per year from EU sources, which is about 13% of our total research funding. My university alone has received more than £20m in the first two years of the EU’s Horizon2020 programme. This includes research to fight malaria, research on space, and vital medical research which benefits us all. It includes European Research Council funding towards the path-breaking research which the University of Glasgow has been conducting on gravitational waves and which led to the confirmation of Einstein’s theory in February this year. It also includes research involving 100 institutions on understanding the human brain. These collaborations enhance the value of our Universities. We know that internationally collaborative research has 50% more impact than that conducted within national borders.

 

Above all, the EU provides a single research area in which the very best talent comes together to advance our knowledge for the benefit of society. At a time when the Leave campaign rails against immigration, it’s sobering to realise that 16% of our academic talent in Scotland comes from EU countries. Indeed more than 1 in 5 of our researchers in Scotland come from the rest of the EU. That number is growing as many of the very best European academics are attracted to the very best Universities, which are here in Scotland and the UK. At the University of Glasgow around 50% of our prestigious European Research Council grant holders are non-UK nationals, many of whom brought their grants to our University with them. They provide an essential contribution to research and teaching in our Universities.

 

In teaching too, the brightest students from the EU come to our best Universities. They bring diversity and enhance the quality of our education. They are a source of trade and economic links for the future. We also know that our own UK students benefit immensely from sharing ideas and perspectives which allow them to become better equipped to tackle complex global challenges. Again, 20% of our postgraduate students in Scotland are from the EU, and over 200,000 UK students have spent time in other European countries on Erasmus exchange programmes. We know that students who participate in Erasmus derive major benefits in terms of employability.

 

Those in the Leave camp who suggest that this will all be left unchanged by Brexit fail to address a number of key points. First, they argue that talented people will still come to the UK even outside under a skilled labour and student visa regime. But the notion that hundreds of thousands of students and skilled researchers and teachers will be unaffected by the extension of a restrictive and bureaucratic Tier-2 and Tier-4 visa system to EU citizens is naïve. It’s also disingenuous for the Leave camp to suggest that they would like this migration to continue: their raison d’être for leaving the EU is precisely to reduce free movement. Second, it’s false to conclude that access to EU funding for our universities will be unfettered following Brexit. Switzerland, following its referendum on limiting freedom of movement with the EU, found its participation in Horizon2020 and Erasmus+ funding streams suspended. Third, the Leave side argues that the UK is a net contributor to the EU budget and that leaving would allow some of the contributions to the EU to be redirected to UK universities. But the Leave side’s calculations of the savings of EU contributions are highly selective. Any future trade deal, as Norway and Switzerland can testify, will require the UK to contribute to the EU budget. Indeed, as the House of Commons Library research shows, the net budgetary costs to the UK of EU membership are negligible, once the UK rebate, European Regional Development Funding and European Social Funding are taken into account: hardly a pot of gold with which to fund our public services, let alone our Universities.

 

But the EU debate for Universities is not only about a narrow cost-benefit analysis. Above all the free movement of scholars and students is the lifeblood of our Universities. Those who argue against EU membership talk about negotiating free trade without the free movement of talented people. This is a dangerous and unattainable chimera. In contrast the free movement of people and ideas are what our Universities are fundamentally about. If we believe that we want the very best Universities in the world, based on competitively-funded research and the pooling of talent then we must recognise the vital role the EU plays in this.