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UK unis urged to take pro-EU campaign beyond HE

Higher education leaders from outside of the UK have voiced their support for the “In” campaign in the upcoming referendum to decide the UK’s future as a member of the European Union.

Attracta Halpin, National University of Ireland; Philippe Moreillon, University of Lausanne; Paul Boyle, University of Leicester; Allen Goodman, IIE; Ashraf Hatem, Egypt's Supreme Council of Universities all expressed their support for the UK to say in the European Union. Photo: The PIE News

"We must make it clear that this decision is not about juicy research grants spent in ivory towers"

Leaders from the US, Ireland, Egypt and Switzerland agreed the UK’s position in the global education field is stronger within the EU. However, they urged universities to appeal to the wider public in their campaign to remain in the EU at a Universities for Europe debate organised by Universities UK this week.

Philippe Moreillon, vice-rector of research and international relations at University of Lausanne, Switzerland, made the evening’s strongest arguments considering Switzerland’s own failed referendum to join the European Union in 2001.

“The argument has to be about the broader picture, and the benefits for society”

“In Switzerland, universities didn’t get involved in the debate but they were wrong because they didn’t inform the debate,” he said, urging UK university leaders to take a stand.

He underlined the importance of foreign scientists to Swiss HE, saying half are from the EU. However, he noted the negative impact a 2014 passed referendum limiting the free movement of people from the EU had on Switzerland’s participation in the Erasmus and Horizon 2020 programmes.

Showing his optimism for the future of the EU, Moreillon said “it can’t be built in 50 or 60 years, you have to keep that in mind”.

Attracta Halpin, registrar at the National University of Ireland, said the argument for staying in the EU “has to be about the broader picture, and the benefits for society, not just the benefits for higher education”.

In the case of Ireland, Halpin said, EU membership helped bring feminism and women’s rights to the country.

She also mentioned strides made through EU funded projects with universities and industry as part of the Northern Ireland and Irish Republic peace process.

She noted the UK’s own impact on Europe by being “hugely influential” in shaping the higher education system through the Bologna process.

Allen Goodman, president and CEO of the Institute for International Education said the UK’s special relationship with the EU informs the US’s own foreign policy.

Citing the recent thaw in relations between Iran and the US, Goodman said, “We appreciate EU foreign policy, it helps us understand. [The UK] not having that seat in Brussels would be an impediment for us working with Europe,” he said.

Goodman warned it would take years to negotiate European relations back to their current levels in the event of a Brexit and the flow of researchers and students between the UK and Europe would be impacted.

Asked how to win over the wider public, Goodman agreed with Professor Ashraf Hatem, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Universities in Egypt, that universities must show both the pros and the cons of the argument.

“The UK not having that seat in Brussels would be an impediment for us working with Europe”

Hatem lauded the unity of European countries, saying it “represents a dream” for Arab countries who haven’t come together despite having similar cultures and language.

Speaking the following day at the UK HE International Unit’s International Higher Education Forum, Leszek Borysiewicz vice chancellor at Cambridge University urged his colleagues to take the pro-EU argument beyond the academy.

“We must make it clear to people in our academic communities and beyond that this decision is not about juicy research grants spent in ivory towers, and state-of-the-art laboratories that have nothing to do with the wider population,” he said.

“This is about continuing to enable research that will save lives in this country and elsewhere; this is about continuing to facilitate the knowledge that underpins innovative technologies that will improve lives around the world; this is about the livelihoods that hinge on the creation of all those small and medium enterprises built on the intellectual property and know-how generated in our universities.”

The UK’s EU referendum will take place on June 23.

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