With sterling universities like Oxford and Cambridge that attract scores of foreign students and educators, Britain has long prized its education sector as one of its most prestigious national offerings. The prospect of Britain leaving the European Union, however, has sparked real concerns in the education field. Universities are lobbying hard to remain in the Union in the final days before the ‘Brexit’ vote, fearful that leaving will jeopardize the future of UK higher education.
Universities UK, an organization representing the country’s university leaders, strongly supports remaining within the EU. The organization says that there are 125,000 EU students currently enrolled in British universities and that these students generate more than £2.2bn for the economy and create 19,000 jobs. Furthermore, 14% of Britain’s university staff comes from other EU nations.
Additionally, a significant amount of research funding comes from Brussels: £1bn a year. The quality of research is enhanced through cooperation with European Union states. British academics are able to tap into and cooperate with a continent-wide pool of specialists and institutions. According to George Bowden of the Huffington Post, after a referendum denied Swiss workers freedom of movement, the European Union revoked the country’s access to Erasmus, a program that facilitates student-exchanges. Thus, there is a precedent for curtailing a country’s opportunities in education if its relationship with the EU changes.
In some cases, the EU helps fund British universities to a proportion of around 30% above the government’s contribution. The EU supports training and learning programs for young people without employment and contributes to large-scale capital spending projects on buildings and facilities located at universities, and it allows freedom of movement for many UK academics, pedagogues, and students through the Erasmus program. For these reasons, nearly 90% of those working in British higher education will reportedly vote to remain in the European Union, according to survey data examined by John Morgan for Times Higher Education. More than 40% of those working in the British university system say they are likely to leave in the event of a British exit.
One survey respondent said:
“My entire research team is funded by E.U. money. Obviously, without belonging to the E.U. we can’t continue with the work we are doing, and given the ESRC [Economic and Social Research Council] etc. don’t usually fund work in our field very much these days, it’s just not realistic to imagine that alternative funding will be made available. So I have a feeling we might move bit by bit over to Germany, where the funding for this kind of research is pretty handsome, and better supported generally.”
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett wrote an impassioned editorial for The Guardian titled “Britain’s Young People Will Suffer Most from an EU Divorce” arguing that as the older generation leans toward a British exit, it will affect young people, particularly students, most negatively and disproportionately. She urges young people, who are statistically much less likely to vote than older people, to make their voices heard by voting on June 23rd. Of the 15 old EU members, the youth turnout in Britain is the lowest.
The Royal Irish Academy has also expressed support for UK to remain in the EU, worrying about the damage that will be done to its universities if Britain’s education system becomes more insular. According to David Walker of Times Higher Education, the Royal Academy signed a letter touting the benefits of the Erasmus program and the internationalization of scientific outputs as a result of increased EU-membership. It warns of serious, unanticipated consequences should Britain leave the Union.
Some say, however, that the increased international fees for students wishing to study in a UK that is independent of the European Union would be able to fund scholarships, apprenticeships, and further education reform for UK students. “I’m pretty positive in terms of the future for students if we were to leave, on the basis that not just to secure and safeguard university funding,” says employment minister Priti Patel. “We currently send money to Brussels and we’d have that money back in this country to spend on priorities such as universities.”
Nonetheless, the voices worrying about the ramifications of Britain’s departure from the EU on its education sector are much more legion and dire, overwhelming those who believe a British exit would positively impact the country’s university system. The nationwide vote on June 23 will settle the issue, with both ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ camps needing to come together after the result to determine the higher education system’s future path.