The government’s commitment to a referendum on our membership of the European Union has come to the fore again in the past fortnight with the launch of the “In” campaign supporting our continued membership, and a shoal of campaigns competing to leave “at any price”.
For too long the debate has been one sided – portraits have continued to be painted in the national media of all the problems of current membership while conveniently forgetting what has been achieved – especially in the last generation for students currently studying at university or embarking on their careers.
The opportunities to work, study and travel across the breadth of the enlarged European Union are huge achievements which only this generation have known – the divided Europe before 1989 is one to which no one should wish to return.
“Scientists for the EU”, which was created as a Facebook group in the wake of the General Election in May, now has 6,400 members. Headed by the Astronomer Royal Martin Rees it highlights the real risks to our scientific community of a “Brexit”.
One simple fact stands out for me – over 3,500 researchers – often setting out on their careers - have been supported by the EU to improve their skills helping to turn research and innovation into jobs and growth.
But since my election as Chair of the Education Select Committee I have also been struck by the support amongst young people and students for our continued membership of a reformed European Union. Over 200,000 students and 20,000 staff have benefitted from study abroad through Erasmus work and study placements – which is the biggest source of funding for study abroad.
In fact it is a UK government priority to increase the numbers of UK students gaining international experience, and students who have pursued such experience have been shown to be more likely to start their own business, driving the skilled employment and increased productivity of the UK economy that we need to see to succeed in the global marketplace.
Likewise EU students studying in the UK are estimated to spend more than £2bn for the UK economy and support 19,000 British jobs in the local communities. London benefits greatly from its world class institutions and the possibility of a “Brexit” would leave the capital in unknown territory.
The closer we get to the referendum, the more we are hearing about the issue of extending votes to 16 and 17 year olds.
The strongest argument for doing so is that it is this generation which will have to live with the decision, probably for the majority of their lifetimes – and it is their opportunities that would most be affected by the vote. I believe it is absolutely right that they must have a say.
As chair of the Conservative Group for Europe I have already engaged in vigorous debate on several campuses about our continued membership – that debate must be had.
Strong universities benefit the British economy, educate our workforce and provide the opportunities for individuals to compete in the global race.
Membership of the EU enhances this and I welcome “Universities for Europe” to make a stand and contribute to that debate across the country.