Universities should be leading debates on political policy, values, social conditions and international collaborations. We should take pride in stimulating active and, at times, radically opposing views that need to be aired and considered.
How things have changed. When I was an undergraduate nearly 50 years ago, almost all academics and students were engaged in the issues of the day. Today, this bizarre concept of 'safe places' and suppressing debate because somebody might be offended is in danger of creating a vacuous space of non-discussion.
Clearly, one of the key debates that will affect the next generation is the future of Europe and the UK's relationship with the EU. The 23rd June EU Referendum is of exceptional importance. Regent's University London has published four annual reports on aspects of the relationship between the UK, EU, and the USA. These have all demonstrated the strength of the UK's position in the EU, including trade, energy, education, research, security and defence.
However, rational argument based on fact, rarely resolves political disagreement. The outcome of the June Referendum will likely be the result of who can shout the loudest and who can drum up the most fear - tactics being used by both sides - and who can play on the nationalism of an older British population who are most likely to turn out and vote.
For 'Remain' it might have been better to concentrate on all that we have gained from EU membership - 60 years of peace, economic growth of 104% since we joined, a strong seat at the high table in global decision making, first class trade deals and so much more.
For those of us who believe in evidence based decision-making this has been a very disappointing month. The recent debate between Herman van Rompuy, President Emeritus of the European Council, and Chris Grayling, Leader of the House of Commons, at the annual Regent's University London 'Jean Monnet Lecture' offered some radically opposing views on what has been achieved through UK membership of Europe.
Grayling's perspective was that the UK will become increasingly subject to the views of a single block of the Eurozone countries. Van Rompuy countered that the UK (currently) has considerable influence in EU decision-making and there is not a single hostile block, but rather 27 other countries alongside the UK which each have their own priorities.
The IMF has stated clearly that "a so-called 'Brexit' would disrupt established trading relationships and cause 'major challenges' for both the UK and the rest of Europe. The referendum has already created uncertainty for investors and a vote to exit would only heighten this."
The French minister of economics has been completely clear that there would be no place for Britain "in trade talks if the Referendum resulted in Brexit," and that the country would be "killed in trade discussions. The UK is strong because it is part of the UK."
The message from across the Atlantic has been similarly clear. The US trade representative, Michael Froman, has consistently stated that America does not welcome trade agreements with individual countries and prefers to reach agreement with large blocks, like the EU. This was also the key message presented by President Obama in his latest visit to the UK.
The treasury has modeled a number of post-Brexit options and concluded that under the Norway model, the one preferred by most Brexit supporters, there would be a decline in the UK GDP of 6%, which is equivalent to £4,300 per family. Oxford Economics suggest a 3.9% decline, PWC 3.5%, and the National Institute for Economic and Social research warns of a decline of 2.25%. Some 76% of economists say that the economy will get worse in the medium term and only 9% predict that there will be an improvement, although the latter offer no models to support their position.
The answer from the Brexit camp is that everybody else is mistaken and that the UK will have a very strong negotiating hand. They also claim that the current contribution to the EU could be freed up to support essential services. This is simply not true. 44% of UK exports go to the EU countries, while only 16% of EU exports come into the UK.
It is perfectly possible that other EU countries would welcome a reduction in the UK's competitive economy if there were a vote for Brexit. Those non-EU countries that have negotiated access to the free market have had to pay nearly the same per capita to the EU as the UK currently does, and also allow free movement of labour. The difference is that they have no seat at the policy-making table to influence the future.
The Brexit camp have perpetuated lies - that the UK sends £350 million a week to Brussels (the net figure is less than half, closer to £160 million), that Turkey is about to join the EU causing 'migrant' problems, that there will be a European army that we will be forced to join, that all pressures on resources are attributable to migrants, that we will be able to close our borders - and so many more. Despite the claims of the 'leave movement,' Brexit will not help the lower paid. It will destroy their lives, employment prospects and prosperity.
Why is all of this important to universities? British universities must be at the heart of their communities and at the forefront of the research that carries humanity forward and develops economies. It is for this reason that entrepreneurs and philanthropists have invested so much in the UK and supported British universities.
On 17th June Bill Gates stated clearly that he had invested $1 billion in the UK to support its excellent universities and their access to the single European market. It is almost certain that UK institutions would lose access to European research funding, of which this country is the largest recipient. EU students will potentially require Tier 4 visas to study in the UK and could lose their access to student loans, making the UK a less attractive study destination. British students and academics will find it more difficult to gain access to Erasmus funding to study and gain experience elsewhere.
Such developments would impact our engagement in European and global scientific matters and damage the UK's attraction for international study. Universities must continue to mobilise ahead of the Referendum to explain further the realities and encourage their eligible students and people in the community to vote. It is their futures that are threatened if we leave the EU.
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