The idea of withdrawing from the European Union is profoundly mistaken, promoted by a ragtag of interests and members of the national press who often seem to confuse Europe with immigrants and run stories with two variants: “They’re taking our money” and “it’s just a crazy bureaucracy.” The result is clear enough: Britain has become more and more marginalized within Europe, a stance that can only make it more and more marginal to the world at large.
Of course, the European Union is hardly perfect but, as The Economist has reported, the consequences of a withdrawal from it would be catastrophic. The magazine argues that Britain would end up as just another “scratchy outsider.”
It’s even worse so far as universities are concerned. British universities have become tightly integrated into Europe, often maintaining their own offices in Brussels. A withdrawal would be an utter catastrophe for them for three reasons.
Reason one: the flow of students and scholars. This is the 25th anniversary of the E.U. Erasmus program. In those years, nearly three million students from across Europe have benefited from a study- or work-abroad experience provided by Erasmus. Of these, more than 200,000 were from the U.K. That is before we even include the academic and graduate opportunities provided by Erasmus Mundus.
Reason two: British universities are well-respected in Europe. They are almost a kind of model insofar as their autonomy is concerned and they are important players in organizations like the League of European Research Universities. If Britain exits the political bloc, they run the risk of becoming a competitor to continental universities.
Reason three: Research income. It is a fascinating and little-known fact that over the last few years, British universities have become more dependent on research income from the E.U. The founding of the European Research Council has produced a vast new source of money from which British universities do disproportionately well. Most British research-intensive universities obtain at least 10 percent of their research income from Europe. Some derive much more. One of the country’s leading universities is now at 20 percent. Such sources of research funds would be either cut off or would need to be renegotiated in new collaborative agreements.
Many higher-education leaders do what they can to fight for the European cause. For example, I am privileged to have been invited on to the Governing Board of the European Institute of Innovation & Technology, which is producing new ways of linking industry and universities from its headquarters in Budapest and which, after a slightly shaky start, is clearly producing the goods.
But there is a wider issue at stake than just the case of universities. The European Union was founded out of a kind of idealism in the belief that a conglomerate of nations could, over time, become something more. That is still a noble vision, notwithstanding the democratic deficit and the undoubted travails of the euro. But it is a vision that is vulnerable to mean spirits.