Aladdin Benali interviews UCL Provost Professor Michael Arthur about his views on Brexit.
UCL Provost Professor Michael Arthur played a public role during the EU referendum campaign. He has since written articles in The Guardian and made multiple appearances on UCL’s YouTube channel, UCLTV.
On Thursday 2nd February, the government published a White Paper, outlining its Brexit strategy. It is now being discussed in parliament before April when Article 50, the EU clause that formally notifies intention to withdraw membership within the next two years, will be activated.
As head of UCL, an institution that relies heavily on the EU, Professor Arthur is responsible for overseeing the way Brexit affects the university. In an exclusive interview with Pi Features, Professor Arthur shares his thoughts about why he supports a so-called ‘soft’ Brexit, a treaty that maintains some EU-member-state privileges without formal membership.
You mentioned the importance of EU research funding from the Horizon 2020 Programme and European Research Council funding. This is only accessible as an EU associate member. Do you then personally favour a ‘soft’ Brexit?
If we go into Brexit then yes, I would prefer a soft Brexit. It makes more sense than complete withdrawal, particularly for universities, students, staff, and research funding. If we are going into a hard Brexit, then we need to prepare ourselves for that, but also do the right thing by the country. And the right thing for the country would be to continue funding research, but through the British route, with similar mechanisms in place for career development through the European Research Council, and extra funding for cross-border research networks. The world’s biggest problems are not going to be solved by individual universities, or individual countries. We’ve got to be able to have the mechanism to work collectively if we’re going to be effective.
This needs to be in place, together with things like Erasmus and Marie Curie research. When the Swiss funded their own version of the Erasmus type scheme when they were excluded. Are we going to do the same thing? All these things have been important in the performance and international profile of British universities. I would say to government, ‘if you want British universities to stay as prominent internationally and effective for the economy, then we need all these things in place.’
What has happened is in the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor identified by 2020 £2bn per annum extra for R&D, probably right at the innovation end of the spectrum. The jury is out as to whether that is then supplemented further as European research funding is repatriated.
What about immigration? UCL is proudly pro-immigration, and relies heavily on it. 4,000 EU students (more than any other UK university) and at least 20% of its staff are from the EU. One of the key messages of the referendum was to reject a ‘pro-immigration establishment’ and cut EU-UK migration. As Provost of a prestigious institution, you represent the establishment. Aren’t you undermining the will of the British people, by supporting a Brexit that would do nothing to address immigration numbers?
In separate studies conducted by Universities UK, on immigration perception, 85% of people don’t see students as immigrants. They accept that they benefit the country in terms of development, creativity, and the economy. The British public accept that, so I don’t think I’m undermining the will of the British people.
You also made it clear that you’d like the same assurances for staff. Brexit of immigration fear is primarily about EU workers. Isn’t there a conflict between demanding assurances for staff and what the public want?
I don’t think there’s a conflict. Most people accept that if we need to keep our universities at the top, we need top talent. I think the immigration concerns were much wider than academic staff in universities. Was immigration the real reason for why people voted for Brexit? I’m not so sure.
There’s discussion about whether students should be counted in immigration statistics. If we have the target of getting immigration down to the ‘tens of thousands’, should that include students here for three or four years?
I’m a continued supporter that we should take students out of immigration figures. That’s been done in Canada and Australia. That would show a clearer picture of what’s really going on with immigration. So, I would be in favour of doing so. But we’ve been unable to persuade government of the benefit of that.
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