Friday, 3 June 2016

On #Brexit and Universities

The EU referendum on 23 June is a timely prompt to look at what impact the EU has on universities.

There’s no doubt where Universities UK – the sector-wide representative group – sits. “The UK’s membership of the European Union makes our outstanding universities even stronger, which in turn benefits everyone in the UK.”. So that’ll be a preference for In, I guess.

No, it isn't Eurovision ...
The underlying argument is one about mobility: through schemes like ERASMUS, staff and students in UK universities get a chance to work and study at other EU universities, and vice versa. And this leads to a better education, better research, and more capable people.

The EU funds such schemes, and helps to make them happen: it is clear that there are not similar exchanges from UK universities to non-EU countries. The closest thing to such a scheme beyond the EU is the junior year abroad programme that many US universities operate, with some UK universities very happy to bring such students in for a semester or a year. But it’s one way traffic: there aren’t many UK students spend a year at an American university, and where it happens – such as American Studies at UEA – it is linked to a specific degree programme, and arises because the University has worked hard to make it so.

There’s a financial angle too. The EU funds research across its member states, often for projects done in collaboration between EU universities - and UK universities are active in this. And students from other EU nations study at the UK’s universities, on the same terms as home students. (This gives rise to some oddities: Scottish universities are free for Scottish students and non UK EU students, but students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland are liable to pay fees …)

If we left the EU, other things being equal, the research funding would stop, and EU students would be like any other overseas student – and pay the same fees. So what do UK universities currently get from these EU sources?

HESA data lets us find out. Using data for 2014-15, it is possible to calculate for each university how much they get in EU research funding (from finance table 5); and how much they get in tuition fees from EU students (finance table 4 and student table 11a). And this in turn lets you calculate what proportion of their overall income comes from EU sources.

You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve done the maths for you. Across the UK as a whole 4.7% of funding in 2014-15 came from EU sources, with research funding accounting for slightly more of the whole than tuition fees. Of the tuition fees, two thirds is accounted for by full-time undergraduate fees.

The picture varies greatly: while a few universities get less than 1% of their income from EU sources, for others it is a noticeable amount. Here’s the top 10:


What is immediately obvious is the London bias, and also the absence of the big-money research universities. None of the top 10 have medical schools, which drives a lot of UK research money. And of these 10, eight get most of their EU income via tuition fees. But for all of them, the risk of Brexit is clear: 10% of income is a lot to lose, and recovering it is uncertain.

Does this mean that universities are right to campaign for the EU? Money is uncertain, and in truth we simply don’t know what would happen, especially in the medium to long term, if the UK left the EU. To my mind, the better reasons are those of mobility and opportunity, and they are good and noble reasons. The Universities UK campaign seems to me to be based on hope and optimism about making a better tomorrow. I’m all in favour of that.

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