‘Brexit’ makes no sense for our universities

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By now, I think every single person in Britain knows that on June 23rd we are going to get the chance to vote on whether or not we want to remain a member of the European Union. The debate has been pretty much dominating the news for months now. As the vote on ‘Brexit’ gets closer and closer, both the ‘In’ and ‘Out’ campaigns are picking up speed. At the moment, it seems that the result is still anybody’s guess.

Both sides of the debate are comprised of bizarre bands of unlikely allies. On the one hand you’ve got David Cameron, George Osborne, Tim Farron, and Jeremy Corbyn all claiming the country will be better off remaining in the EU. Then on the other hand you’ve got Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, and, George Gallowway all demanding we get away from Europe as fast as we can. There’s no unanimous agreement from either of the major parties, with both prominent Tory and Labour figures coming down on both sides of the fence. I think having people with such different political ideologies on either side shows just how complicated a question this is. With that in mind it’s no surprise that the vast majority of polls seem to show public opinion split almost exactly down the middle.

However despite the overall indecision of the public as a whole, one group in particular have been very clear on where they stand. The vast majority of university students and staff appear to be heavily in favour of Britain’s continuing membership of the EU. The organisation which represents 133 university vice-chancellors unanimously endorsed the ‘In’ campaign. It’s difficult to argue that Brexit would have anything other than a profoundly negative impact on higher education in this country.

In Britain, we are lucky to be home to a large number of high ranking, internationally renowned universities. That reputation is a huge part of the reason why there are currently around 125,000 EU students studying at British universities, generating an estimated £2.2 billion for the economy and creating around 19,000 jobs. As well as that, 14 percent of academic staff originally come from other EU countries. Successfully attracting the best people from all over Europe is made a whole lot easier by Erasmus, the EU student exchange programme. Since Erasmus was launched in 1987, over 200,000 students and 20,000 academics have taken part. Already, that seems a pretty strong argument for the benefits the EU continuously provides for our universities.

Equally as important as attracting the best people to Britain is British students themselves getting the chance to study abroad. Spending time studying in another country isn’t just tourism for the sake of it. Nowadays, having experience and understanding of different cultures is a highly valuable skill to be able to demonstrate. The careers service here at Lancaster even run a whole workshop on ‘cultural awareness’. Cutting British students off from the opportunities that Erasmus provides makes absolutely no sense.

Another crucial role that the European Union plays is providing funding and investment for university research. In 2007, a team at the University of Manchester were given funding to carry out research into the development of graphene. Three years later, the team were awarded a Nobel Prize and the global market for graphene is predicted to exceed £250 million in the next ten years. Horizon 2020 is the EU’s largest research funding programme with a budget of €70 billion available between 2014 and 2020.  Cases like the team at Manchester show that it’s important not to underestimate the impact that kind of funding can have.

Although overall public opinion seems to be divided almost 50/50 on whether or not Brexit is a good idea, when you look at the break down of demographics it’s the 18 to 24 age range who are the most overwhelmingly pro-EU, with 69% saying they would vote to remain in. It’s a clear contrast with the most strongly anti-EU age range which is 65+. From this, it’s clear to see that the number of young adults that turn out to vote will have a big impact on the outcome.

Rightly or wrongly, students and ‘young people’ have a reputation for not turning out to vote. You only have to watch that awful advert Channel 4 are running to try and encourage voter registration to see how hard people are trying to motivate us to use our vote. But when it comes to the EU referendum, the student vote could potentially be crucial.  Of course, the outcome of this referendum extends far beyond just what it would mean for us while we’re studying here at Lancaster. EU laws protect rights to parental leave, equal rights for part-time workers, and health and safety protection, to name only a few. Some of the world’s leading economists have warned against Britain leaving the EU. The chief of the IMF has warned that the uncertainty that would be caused by a Brexit drag down the British economy.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, it will have a massive effect on the country’s future. For students, the only beneficial outcome will be for us to vote to remain in the EU.