This week, Universities UK and the Russell Group, seemingly speaking on behalf of the whole sector, produced an Open Letter from distinguished vice-chancellors. ‘It is no exaggeration to suggest,’ said the letter, ‘that this [leaving the EU without a deal] would be an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take decades to recover.’ Actually, it would be as exaggerated as a Donald Trump tweet. The detail of this is brilliantly demonstrated by Noel Malcolm in an analysis for Briefings for Brexit. The bit that made me burst out laughing was Sir Noel’s comparison of a similar Open Letter, from 103 university vice-chancellors, just before the referendum vote in 2016, with this week’s effort. The 2016 version claimed that ‘Every year, universities generate over £73 billion for the UK economy … while supporting nearly 380,000 jobs’. The 2019 letter says: ‘As a sector which contributes over £21 billion to UK GDP every year and supports 944,000 jobs, it is critical to the national interest, to the economy, communities and the wider society.’
Can it really be that, in the two-and-a-half years between the first letter and the second, universities have contrived to contribute £52 billion less to the economy while creating over 250 per cent more jobs? Or is it that among the ‘more than 150 education providers’ which Universities UK and the Russell Group claim to represent, no one can be found who can do arithmetic?
This article is an extract from Charles Moore's Spectator Notes, available in this week's magazine.