Speech delivered by Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz

Closing keynote address at the International Higher Education Forum 2016, 1 March 2016

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’m very grateful to Vivienne Stern, Director of the UK Higher Education International Unit, for inviting me to address you this afternoon.

Having looked carefully at today’s programme, I do wish I could be speaking on one of the other subjects discussed today:

 “Universities and international innovation”… I’d have a lot to say about that.

How about: “International collaboration and citation impact”?

Or “Flying the flag for UK higher education”?

Or even trying to answer the question “What is a global university?”…

All of them excellent topics, that are absolutely essential to the future of higher education in the UK, and across the globe.

But because Vivienne knows I have strong views on the importance of the UK’s full membership of the European Union –no surprise there— I have been invited to defend the motion that “We are international; but we are European first”.

By “we”, I suppose what is meant is the UK’s higher education sector, a large part of which is gathered here today.

If that is the case, Vivienne, and with great respect, I will spend the next few minutes arguing that we are not European first –because for most of us, being European and being international are part of the same identity, and the same aspiration.

So perhaps instead the motion could be rephrased as follows: “We are European; AND we are international.”

Because the two cannot be exclusive.

We cannot call ourselves one without fully embracing the other.

Let me take each of these statements in turn…

“We are European…”

First off: We are European.

Let’s not be coy about this.

After all, we know that it was only though an accident of geology that we became separated from “the continent”.

Remember that there was a time when these islands were part of the same continental landmass…

…and the Thames, the Seine and the Rhine all flowed into the same river basin, which only became the English Channel we know today after a post-glacial melt some 8,000 years ago.

No matter what Brexit campaigners would wish us to think, we are inextricably linked to Europe.

But we don’t have to go as far back as the latest glaciation to understand why the European project is one to which we should always aspire to be a part of.

At the heart of this modern European project are some very simple but very powerful ideas:

That this community of nations, bound by geography, can achieve more, and do better, by working collectively.

That these countries can avoid war with each other, and improve their lot, by acting in concert.

That its members will be enriched, not diminished, by allowing their citizens the mobility to seek opportunities.

Those are the fundamental principles underpinning the European ideal.

I stand here today as the literal embodiment of what that European ideal will allow –I am the British (or rather, Welsh) child of Polish refugees, I grew up in Cardiff, and I now find myself at the helm of a quintessentially British University seeking to maintain its competitiveness not only in the UK, or in Europe, but globally.

I feel European to my very core.

And my Britishness is as much a part of this feeling of belonging to Europe as is my Polish genetic background.

I have been shaped, at the most personal level, by the generosity of spirit of the European project.

But I speak to you today as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, so I must grapple with the question of what it actually means for our universities to be European.

Let’s be honest: our sector has done quite well out of our European engagement, especially when it comes to research-intensive universities.

The facts are all out there:

  • The UK received €6.9bn of European funding under the FP7 –almost 18% of the total funding awarded to EU28;
  • To date, we have received close to €1.3bn under H2020.
  • EU funding accounts for approximately 16% of UK universities’ research budget –in practical terms, this is equivalent to having another research council.
  • The UK hosts 22% of all European Research Council grants –the highest number of grants of any member country.

No one could argue that our sector does not bring a good return on investment from European membership….

But there is a much more fundamental argument to be made in favour of our sector’s full engagement with the EU.

For me, the bigger question is not how much funding can we get from Europe, but what will that funding enable.

Let’s consider how we have benefited from freedom of mobility within the EU:

200,000 UK students have studied and worked abroad through the Erasmus programme.

Studies show that students who have done Erasmus work or study placement are 50% less likely to experience long-term unemployment.

At a time when our recent graduates face such uncertainty in entering the job market, this fact alone ought to stiffen our resolve. 

We know that 15% of academic staff at UK universities is from other EU countries, and that over 125,000 EU students are currently studying at UK universities.

The conclusion is clear. Excluding ourselves from a system that allows the mobility of staff and students, losing that ability to attract the brightest minds from our nearest-neighbouring countries and from our nearest collaborators, would impoverish us –in every sense.

So beyond the research income generated through European awards, what interests me most is the impact that collaborative research can have.

Again, let’s look at the facts:

  • Our analysis tells us that somewhere in the region of 100,000 collaborative links emerged involving the UK scientists and their European partners as a direct result of FP7 funding;
  • 18,500 of those were with Germany; 13,000 with France; and around 12,000 with Italy.
  • At least 60% all internationally co-authored papers produced by UK scientists today include a European co-author…

We know that collaborative research is more highly cited, and therefore more impactful (50% more impactful, by one calculation), than research undertaken in isolation.

And we know that collaborative research is the only way to tackle some of the great global challenges we face, whether it is the problems of ageing societies, energy sustainability, or food security.

So ultimately, our close engagement with our European partners matters because it enables universities to better serve our societies.

We don’t have to go too far to see how EU funding has a real impact on the knowledge fuelling the UK’s research base.

And we don’t have to be visionaries to see how this knowledge has tremendous societal impact, too.

Let me give you just one example (involving the University of Cambridge, if I may):

The emergence of the SARS and Swine Flu viruses has shown that diseases that spread from humans to animals now pose one of the greatest threats to public health.

With at least one new disease emerging in the world each year, infectious diseases are not only a global health risk, but may also have considerable economic consequences –as we have recently seen with the Ebola outbreak.

To ensure that Europe –including the United Kingdom—is prepared for human pandemics, and to mitigate the potential risks of such pandemics, the European Union supported a proposal –ANTIGONE (ANTIcipating the Global Onset of New Epidemics), a large-scale research programme focusing on the emergence of infectious diseases –particularly those originating from animal-borne pathogens.

In 2011 it awarded the consortium of 14 partners, including the University of Cambridge, a total of €12 million over five years through FP7.

The ANTIGONE project wishes to understand why some viruses and bacteria spread by animals cause epidemics in humans, while others do not.

Among the questions it seeks to answer are:

  • How do viruses and bacteria cross over from animals to humans?
  • How do they adapt to living in a human body?
  • And how do they become transmissible from human to human?

Finding answers to these questions has enhanced scientist’s capacity to predict, prevent and prepare for future pandemics of animal origin.

I ask you: what could be more urgent than this?

And I ask you: could we pull it off without EU funding and collaboration?

Given the scale and the complexity of the challenge, the answer is NO.


Now… I will be the first to admit that the EU is not a perfect institution.

Some of the things it does can be inadequate, and are often insufficient.

Consider, for instance, the response to the harrowing migrant crisis.

But tell me this:

What would have been the response of a continent that did NOT have a common framework?

Would we have been better off if every European nation decided to set its own policy on one of the great humanitarian tragedies of our time?


So I agree, Europe and its institutions are messy.

They’re also the best we have.

They can be improved. But we won’t improve them by staying outside and remaining curious bystanders.

We can only improve the EU’s mechanisms by remaining fully engaged partners, and by exerting our influence through credible leadership and collaboration.

“We are international…”

This point –exerting our influence and leadership—brings me back to the title of this session… because our position of leadership is not only European, but global.

So we are European, AND we are international.

The wider world looks to us –and by us, I mean the UK—BECAUSE we are European.

I understand there was a debate last night about the views from outside the UK on the EU debate and its impact on British universities… I’m really sorry to have missed that!

How odd it must seem to our all friends outside the UK to see our country tearing itself apart over this issue…

How petty it must seem to countries that have fought hard to be admitted into this community of nations –committed to the values of openness and excellence and freedom— to see us squabbling and taking our membership of the EU for granted.

I have just returned from India, and I can tell you that they’re not very impressed.

And when I arrive in Senegal in a few days’ time, and I talk about the importance of international collaboration to foster excellence in higher education and research –what weight can my words carry with local policymakers if we are seen as a nation more interested in digging moats than in building bridges?

Cutting ourselves off from the EU does not enhance our standing in the world –it diminishes it.

What about the collaborations with Latin America, with Africa, with the U.S., enabled by funding from H2020 and other EU funding mechanisms?

Look: the discovery of gravitational waves that was in the headlines recently was made by an international team that included early career researchers supported by Marie Skłodowska-Curie grants.

This paradigm-shifting discovery, led by a team based at MIT, was in part facilitated by EU-funded data analysis, and by the development of new EU-funded technologies.

So we do not want to cut ourselves off from the EU any more than we want to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world.

And let’s not kid ourselves by thinking that being outside of a European regulatory framework would exclude us from having to abide by those regulations.

Just ask our friends in Norway, or Switzerland.

Speaking now more narrowly on behalf of the UK Higher Education sector, let’s not forget that we’re in a global market, and in a global competition for talent.

And while the UK outside of the EU might continue to have world-leading universities and research facilities, our capacity to attract that talent would be eroded…

Our power to lead scientific research would suffer…

Our ability to shape research policy on some of the most immediate challenges we face would be trumped… (now there’s a word you don’t want to hear too much these days).

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues—

The scene has been set for a referendum in just under four months.

When the sound and the fury have subsided, when the dust has settled, we will be left with the outcome of one of the most serious choices this country has been asked to make since 1975 –and possibly for many decades hereafter.

It will not have escaped your attention that, amid the many arguments deployed over the airwaves or in print by political leaders, the importance of the EU for the university sector has not been addressed very often in the past few days.

Although we are respectful of differences of opinion within our universities, perhaps a consensus is forming around the notion that continued membership of the EU is vital to the UK’s higher education sector –or at least this is my hope.

On Thursday I will be meeting with the EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas, and I will reiterate the importance of the Commission’s support for science, technology and innovation in our country.

Our own Secretary of State for Science and Universities, Jo Johnson, continues to argue persuasively that British science and innovation can flourish best within the EU, and in my meetings with him I have expressed my full support…

Although many of us here –perhaps not all, but many— may agree on the fundamental role that full EU membership has for our sector, we still need to get the message out.

A few weeks back I was invited to give evidence to the House of Lords’ Select Committee on Science and Technology.

One of the questions I was asked was: “Is the science community and the university community in the UK making the argument against Brexit more broadly understood by the general population?”

The answer, in my view, is: “Not enough”.

Or: “Not enough yet…”

So, if we haven’t done so already, let’s start by impressing upon our own communities the importance of the choice we face.

Let’s empower our communities by encouraging voter registration in universities, and in the populations they serve.

We have to acknowledge that the fate of access to large terrestrial telescope in Chile funded by EU will not be the vote-swinger in the June referendum.

But we must make it clear to people in our academic communities and beyond that this decision is not about juicy research grants spent in ivory towers, and state-of-the-art laboratories that have nothing to do with the wider population.

This is about continuing to enable research that will save lives in this country and elsewhere…

This is about continuing to facilitate the knowledge that underpins innovative technologies that will improve lives around the world…

This is about the livelihoods that hinge on the creation of all those small and medium enterprises built on the intellectual property and know-how generated in our universities.

This is about continuing to secure the UK’s role in the world, and its leadership in tackling some of the most immediate issues posing real existential threats, in our own lifetimes and in the years to come.

For years –not just the past few weeks, or even the past few months—I have paid close attention to discussions about Britain’s membership of the EU.

I have considered carefully both sides of this debate, and have weighed the arguments.

My conclusion is that, as far as our sector is concerned, there is no case in favour of being out.

I cannot identify a single persuasive reason to recommend that we leave the European Union.

Let me be clear: this is not a defence of the status quo, but an open acknowledgement of the fact that our sector depends on the partnerships, the mobility of talent, and the access to sources of research funding that only membership of the EU can offer.

Consequently, I am unashamedly enthusiastic about Europe, and about the achievements and the tremendous potential of the European project.

I am proud of the EU’s very deliberate decision to invest in those areas of research that the market won’t –and individual member states can’t— invest in.

And let’s not forget that the idea of a modern research university –Wilhelm von Humboldt’s idea of a university that mixes research and teaching— is a European idea.

So yes, we are British universities.

AND we are European universities.

AND we are Global universities.

And there is no contradiction between any of those statements.

 “No man is an island,” to quote a famous Cambridge alumnus.

In this day and age, no country is an island –not even our island nation.

Let’s not have the arrogance to suppose we can go it alone.

And let’s make sure our voices are heard.

Thank you all.