UK universities’ confusion on Brexit ‘toxic’, says Germany’s U15

Lack of clear strategy to keep UK in EU’s research framework is blocking new collaborative projects

March 23, 2017
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UK higher education institutions have failed to set out a clear strategy for staying in the European Union’s research framework, and this uncertainty is proving “toxic” for new joint projects, the chair of an association of the biggest research universities in Germany has warned.

As the UK prepares to enter formal negotiations on its future outside the EU, Hans-Jochen Schiewer, rector of the University of Freiburg and chair of the U15 group, also called newfound enthusiasm from the University of Oxford about building new links outside the EU “stupid”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education in Berlin, Professor Schiewer emphasised that he would like to see UK universities remain part of the EU’s multibillion-euro research framework programmes, which include access to prestigious European Research Council grants.

“We’re totally convinced that the UK research powerhouse has to be a partner within the European research area, and of course that means that the UK must have the framework programmes in the future,” he said. “That’s pretty clear. That’s a clear message to the government, the German government, from our side.”

But, despite U15 having had “intensive” talks with UK universities, the UK academy had failed so far to come up with a plan to stay in, he said.

“We still wait to learn more about the strategy of the Russell Group, or the strategy of Universities UK,” he said. “So far, we got only a press release from the Russell Group at the end of January saying [that] it should stay as it is. That’s not a strategy, that’s a mere wish that Brexit would not happen, but Brexit will happen.”

With no clear strategy for German universities to support, this lack of clarity was proving “toxic”, he said. “It means that we stop planning new collaborative research projects with UK partners because we do not know what will be their role within this project in the European context,” he added.

In response, Jessica Cole, the Russell Group’s head of policy, told THE that the body’s position was that the UK government should “prioritise research and innovation in the upcoming negotiations, with a view to ensuring continued UK participation in EU research – including research infrastructures – for the full duration of Horizon 2020 and future framework programmes with a focus on excellence”. A UUK spokesman also said that it was lobbying for continued participation in future framework programmes.

Theresa May, the UK prime minister, has indicated that science and research will be a priority in Brexit negotiations, saying that she would “welcome agreement” on continued research collaboration in a major Brexit speech in January. But the UK’s refusal to accept free movement of people may prove a stumbling block to future participation.

Even if the UK does remain part of future framework programmes, Professor Schiewer said that “you cannot expect the politicians to agree after Brexit that the UK universities still play a dominant role in writing the framework programme”.

Currently, EU research funds are generally distributed competitively on the basis of academic excellence, which has benefited strong research powers such as the UK and Germany. But if Brexit weakens the UK’s influence over the rules, there have been fears that this principle could change, so that more money is redistributed to poorer, newer members of the EU. Professor Schiewer insisted that when distributing money, “quality matters, more than anything else”.

He also took aim at some of the more upbeat Brexit rhetoric coming from the University of Oxford’s new head of Brexit strategy, Alastair Buchan, who told MPs in January that “one of the advantages of going through Brexit is that we start doing things in a much more creative way around the world” and that the “nice and easy flow” of clinical scientists from other English-speaking countries had been a “casualty” of joining the EU. 

Professor Schiewer said that it was “always the case” that UK universities had been able to cooperate with countries outside the EU. For Oxford to argue that because of Brexit, “now we can cooperate more intensively with North America, or the leading countries in Asia, and let’s leave the Continent behind – that’s, I think, in a way, stupid”, he said.

“That’s just to please the politicians in the UK, I would say,” he added.

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