Why universities need Europe

Later this evening, the Times Higher Education Supplement will publish its rankings of the top 100 universities in the world which were founded in the past 50 years.

In previous years, British universities have been very well represented in the list. In 2014, no country in the world had more entries on the list than the UK — we shared the top spot with Australia, while the US came in a poor third. In my region of Yorkshire & Humber, the University of York was a mainstay of the list until it dropped off last year because it inconveniently turned 51 years old.

British universities are, indeed, some of the best in the world. Of course, our ancient institutions, like Oxford, Cambridge and St Andrews, have had several centuries’ headstart on many of their competitors. But our strong showing among the youngest institutions is also no coincidence. In recent decades, British universities have continued to conduct world-class research as part of national, European and worldwide collaborative partnerships.

Though British businesses and the general public are becoming more and more pro-European, it’s hard to find any group of stakeholders more consistently emphatic about the benefits of EU membership — and more forceful in their warnings against quitting — than British universities. And this is no coincidence. Britain does extraordinarily well out of EU research funding, receiving a higher percentage per institution than any other country in Europe. In the modern, internationally competitive research market, we simply wouldn’t have the financial firepower to go it alone.

Besides, research is one of those areas where collaborating with your neighbouring countries is a no-brainer. If your country needs to find out the answer to a pressing societal question, the chances are that other similar countries need that answer too. Why on earth would 28 countries conduct 28 parallel research projects at 28 times the cost? It’s far better to pool your resources and expertise, and do it just once, jointly. When it comes to research, spending money at European level saves money at national level.

But it’s not just about funding. If we aspire to keep our place as a world leader in research, we need to continue to attract the top academics, welcome the best students, and develop the strongest international links. The EU provides a ready-made network and infrastructure for doing this. It’s simply not possible to remain at the heart of that network, as our universities currently are, if you aren’t signed up to, say, the EU principle of free movement of workers — as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge pointed out just a few days ago.

And if you doubt whether we need to be an EU member to get the best out of our research, just ask Switzerland.

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