On a side street on the UCL university campus in Bloomsbury, London, a team of scientists work on the epigenetics of complex traits and diseases: looking at the effect of genetics and environment on common diseases, their research could have huge implications for the future of healthcare and science. In Finland, at the University of Helsinki, a similar group works on the same project, as so do other teams in London, Spain, Belgium and Sweden. Theirs is one of the examples pro-EU supporters mention when defending the bounties European integration has brought to scientific and academic circles in the UK: with two teams in London, the project integrates academic and private institutions with technological, analytical and computational skills from six different teams across the EU. They all work on the understanding of epigenetic processes in common disease, receive funding from the EU and benefit from a lack of barriers to research.
Now the date has been set, politicians have started choosing sides and the campaign has entered its final phase: the battle of Brexit has begun. And universities have become a big part of the debate. Perceived as some of the strongest pro-EU bastions, with student cities such as Cambridge polled as being greatly in favour of remaining in the union, and with pro-EU sentiments higher among graduates, higher education and research have become one of the battlegrounds for those who want to stay in Europe. The argument for staying has been staunchly defended by Universities for Europe and Scientists for EU, two of the most prominent grass-root groups in the debate. This weekend, 103 university leaders published an open letter in the Sunday Times highlighting the benefits of remaining in the Union ‘on our economy, driving growth, generating jobs and ultimately improving people’s lives’. Written by a numerous group of Vice-Chancellors in the UK, the missive urges ‘the British public to consider the vital role the EU plays in supporting our world-class universities.’
The influence of the European integration in the UK university system is clear. According to data from Universities UK, there are 125,000 European students at UK universities, as well as a 14% of staff at academic institutions from the continent. In total, they calculate that the number of students from Europe generate more than 2.2 billion pounds and 19,000 jobs for the British economy. On top of that, research funding from Brussels reaches up to 1 billion pounds a year. More than 50% of the European Research Council’s (ERC) mid-career grants in British universities are in hands of European researchers, and universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Imperial were among the top ten receivers of funding from the ERC between 2007 and 2013.
These are the arguments for those who want to stay: European integration has boosted cutting-edge research, which in its turn has created jobs and made our lives better. UK universities are now some of the best places in Europe to attract European students and highly qualified staff, who then benefit as well from funding from the EU for their research. The EU, after all, is the biggest hub of academic and scientific talent worldwide, and a Brexit vote would deprive our institutions of funding, cut back on research and make collaboration between research groups more difficult.
But despite the strength of pro-EU arguments from academic circles, there have also been those that argue against the defense presented. They admit the UK has benefited from EU funding, and that European networks for research have hugely benefited British institutions. But they argue that an exit from the Union would not necessarily mean a loss of all those benefits: the loss of funding from Europe would be made up from the money saved not sending contributions to the EU. The EU, they argue, has become a bureaucratic obstacle, and deals could still be struck with different countries: with a Brexit, the UK could opt for targeted collaboration with countries of its choice through bilateral relationships. It could give out scholarships to talented European students.
Also, arguments have been centered around the sciences, as one of the biggest areas of research in the UK, but other fields wouldn’t, argue some, be so affected. Exchanges in Social Sciences, for example, benefit from relationships with countries such as Australia, the US or New Zealand. The absence of data makes the arguments in favor of the EU hazy, eurosceptics say, and it is not so clear that leaving the union would have that big an effect on our university system.