Students at Falmouth University have a lot riding on May’s general election, which if won by the Conservatives will trigger a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union and threaten their funding.
The university’s giant bay windows open out on to the idyllic rolling valleys of Cornwall, south-west England, but inside its modernist buildings, the university is a hub of hi-tech activity.
In the video games department, a student hones the settings on a pair of virtual reality goggles in front of a table crammed with cables and joysticks. On the shelves, piles of programming manuals lie next to models from the game Assassin’s Creed.
“The EU has been incredibly important to Falmouth University,” professor Anne Carlisle, vice-chancellor at the institution, told AFP, joking that they hoped to create a “Falmouthfornia” tech-zone modelled on Silicon Valley.
“Over a 14-year period, over £100 million ($146 million, 140 million euros) has been invested into Cornwall higher education to improve infrastructure.”
“The idea that might not exist in the future through some kind of closing of borders is absolutely horrifying,” she added.
Falmouth’s position is not unique and the Times recently published an open letter from some of the country’s leading academics warning against the risk of “Brexit” (“British Exit”).
They noted that “the UK benefits directly from £1.2 billion annually in European research funding and is the largest beneficiary of EU research funds to universities.”
But Britain has never completely fallen for Brussels’ charms, and eurosceptics point to London’s bill for EU membership, which has risen from 1.9 billion euros in 2009 to 8.6 billion euros in 2013, taking into account what the country receives in subsidies.
“However, the net balance does not accurately reflect the many benefits of EU membership,” argues the European Commission in an official document.
“Many of them, such as peace, political stability, security and freedom to live, work, study and travel anywhere in the Union cannot be measured,” it added.
Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron supports EU membership but has promised an in-out referendum as he attempts to counter the rise of UKIP, the anti-EU and anti-mass immigration party that won the 2014 European elections.
If re-elected for a second term, Cameron has promised to “negotiate a better deal” for the UK, a member state since 1973.
Having secured changes, the British public would then be asked “do you want to stay in Europe on this reform basis or leave?” in a referendum to be held by 2017.
“Leaving will save the taxpayer billions of pounds,” said Robert Oulds, director of the right-wing Bruges Group think-tank.
“But the biggest prize… is the restoration of self-government and having decisions made by people that we can elect and dismiss,” he added.
Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour Party, has ruled out a referendum if he wins on May 7, saying Britain’s future “lies inside and not outside the European Union”.
“We won’t condemn this country to years of uncertainty, years of insecurity, by threatening our European future,” he added.
Meanwhile, in Falmouth, student Thomas Brown is busy incorporating animations into 3D programming software, creating realistic combat scenes that will eventually appear in an original video game.
Despite his university’s stance, the 21-year-old believes Britain should be asked the question.
“We joined the EU many years ago, I think it’s fair enough to ask the current generation whether it’s working.”
But a look around his gleaming workspace reveals which way he would vote.
“Obviously I work here, all this is funded by EU money,” he explained. “It’s a good thing to stay in the EU.”