What is The University of Sheffield’s position on the European Union?

As the debate about the UK’s place in the EU gets underway, I am being asked by individuals and organisations about what position our University should take. Should we stay or should we go?

This is not as easy to answer as you might imagine. No matter how clearly, or strongly, you or I may personally feel about this, our University is a charity and constrained in speaking on political matters. So what should we do? What role should we play?

We should be what we have always been.

A university is first and foremost a place of understanding and proper debate, with a tradition of allowing different sides to be heard in an atmosphere of respect and challenge. When the Council of the University discussed this issue yesterday, we began the planning of campus events needed to promote the healthy debate we all want. We shall all have our own views and will be free to express these respectfully and with conviction.

We shall also do all in our power to ensure that our students find it as simple as possible to take part in the democratic process; we have an excellent success rate in ensuring those who are studying with us can take up their legitimate place on the electoral roll.

One big issue that we all agree on, and the Council would want me to shout across the rooftops, is the extraordinary importance of our students and staff from across the whole world. We are an immeasurably better place to live, work and do real good in the world because of being a global community. We are in the top 100 of universities and very proud of it. Many of our wonderful staff and students come, of course, from the EU.

So when asked as an individual scientist, I will of course speak out. But I will also bear in mind that my personal view may differ from the views of others. I hope that the debate can be broadly based on all the issues that will affect the future of the United Kingdom and not the rather narrow base of issues that I have seen in the press. You will not be surprised that I will also want to talk about the benefits that membership of the EU has brought to vital research or how regeneration funds from Europe were crucial to building our Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre.

Beyond this institutional perspective, my personal belief in the value of the European Union stems from a precious peace between former foes. I count myself deeply fortunate that, in my lifetime, conflict has not engulfed our continent. I also think of my gratitude to and admiration for those who taught me from across Europe, and those who I have in turn taught. I know that the quality of our universities owes an enormous debt to scholars who travelled (or occasionally fled) to the UK from neighbouring nations on the continent.

So how should we speak about Europe? Over the next few months we will listen to and take part in a debate which I hope will be shaped by facts and purpose, but which I fear may occasionally be saturated in myth and xenophobia. I already know that the tone of discussions in the media and politics has made hard listening for some of our colleagues, including those who have lived in the UK for many years and in some cases brought up their children in this country. For the first time in their experience, some people are feeling uncomfortably foreign.

Our University prides itself on being an international community, one in which we attempt to model the cooperation and respect for difference often sadly missing in our world. I trust we will do our best to ensure that whatever decision is made on 23 June our University is not divided.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett CBE FRS FLSW
Vice-Chancellor of The University of Sheffield