Past event
21 April 2016
Seminar series
Challenging Europe

Supported by the Universities for Europe and Universities UK, the University of London Institute in Paris and Queen Mary University of London organised a debate on the 15th of April on a topic of increasing interest: Brexit.

The Debate ‘The UK EU Referendum: would a Brexit matter to European Higher Education? was chaired by our Vice-Chancellor, Sir Adrian Smith, and brought together an impressive panel of experts from France, UK and Switzerland.  This debate reinforced the position of universities throughout Europe that it was in none of their interests that the UK should leave the EU.  The French panellists from Sciences Po, the Sorbonne and Paris Seine  echoed the position of the UK panellists from UCL, and King’s College London that the EU was of benefit to the university community.  The representative from the University of Lausanne reinforced this point of view pointing out the difficulty the Swiss university community had faced leaving and continued to face outside the EU. 

The UKIP MEP made the case for an exit from the EU, not as an expert in higher education but rather from his position as an elected representative. He stressed that it is “not the case that we wish to be isolated and marginalised….We see the European Union as inward looking, self-referential protectionist“ and went on to make the point that “ Cooperation between the EU goes back for many centuries long before the EU was invented and the idea that we can only cooperate between universities in Britain and the continent by accepting that we have to be governed by a supra national institution seems to us to be bizarre”.

There was general agreement amongst the protagonists that European processes could be bureaucratic and inefficient and Dame Nicola Brewer put it unambiguously: “you cannot be uncritical about the EU, it is very bureaucratic. But in regards to the question this afternoon, my answer is entirely ambivalent. I think it would be a great error for the British Education Sector if the referendum decided they wanted to leave” and this clear standpoint was reinforced from both sides of the channel. Nicola Ebenburger, Head of Strategy and Institutional Relations, Université Paris Seine, claimed she was interested in the question for two reasons: personal and professional. Personal because “I strongly believe in the European Union as I am myself German and have been working in France since 2005. I live and work here without any constraints.” and on the professional side she fears “only one thing, if there is a Brexit it might become complicated and it would be a shame because if you look at the Erasmus figures, you see that France is the first European country destination for British students, and the UK is the first destination for French students.”

Alex Taylor, European journalist, TV personality and event host reinforced this view and stated that he “is proud of being European” as he fully enjoys the advantages of freedom of movement and believes that it is good not only for students but for everyone to have this possibility. Joanna Newman concluded that “Universities are about creating and sharing knowledge for public benefits” and “I think what the European Union gives to the HE sector is the framework that encourages collaboration and the sharing of knowledge and I think it is very positive for the UK and the HE sector as a whole.”

There was strong interest in the position of Switzerland as a country that takes part in many of the processes of Europe without being itself part of the community. Philippe Moreillon, Vice Rector Research and International relations, University of Lausanne, Switzerland, agreed on the general consensus of the potential difficulties if Brexit goes through “If you are not in the European community, it requires a lot of efforts on everything ..We are not entirely independent” saying that although they perhaps have a say on internal decisions, however that Switzerland does “not chose how we deal with markets”, they have to abide with the specific rules of the market and that not being a full part of the EU posed considerable problems for the country particularly as, “Switzerland is an immigrant country, 50% of researchers and professors do not have a Swiss passport” and stressed that on exit from the EU “collaboration dropped down to 50% immediately”. 

In summing up, Sir Adrian Smith noticed recurring themes. It emerges that “a lot of us believes in the university system” and believes that “the future of the UK relies on being smart and that rests on fabulous universities and research base.” If the UK decides to leave the European Union, one of the main concerns is that it might represent a slowing down of the crucial movement of students and staff and damage “the structure and mechanisms that have enabled us to grow one of the most successful research bases in the world.

The debate made it clear that whatever reasons the UK may consider for a Brexit, the university communities in UK and mainland Europe, as represented in this debate, wish the UK to remain. Professor Moreillon, empathising with the difficulty the UK voters face said it reminded him of a joke that said “The heart says yes, the gut says no and the brain says I don’t know”. 

Watch the video here.