UK universities face continued uncertainty as a consequence of the extension of the Brexit deadline and the delayed post-18 review, leaving them unable to plan ahead, warned sector leaders, who learned this week that British institutions have been forced out of a key European research project.
The European Union’s decision to allow the UK six more months to plan its departure from the bloc came as good news for those fearful of the country crashing out without a trade deal last month. But some academic leaders have expressed concerns over the impact that another six months of indecision could have on their institutions.
Researchers had previously warned of being purposely excluded from European projects on account of their EU partners viewing the UK as too risky to work with, and some have already decided to leave their UK institutions as a result. Times Higher Education has now learned that the 20 UK members of European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST), an EU research network for large, interdisciplinary research projects funded under Horizon 2020, were recently told that they would no longer be able to lead on projects even though the UK has yet to leave the EU.
The nature and timing of Brexit also has huge potential impacts on the ability of UK universities to maintain their existing EU student recruitment.
Meanwhile, the government’s need to focus on the Brexit crisis has delayed publication of its post-18 review – whose panel, led by Philip Augar, is widely expected to recommend a cut in tuition fees, and thus a significant reduction in university funding.
Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, said his own institution had been “scenario planning” for both the post-18 review and Brexit, “looking at different options for each outcome and being as cautious as we can”.
“There are uncertainties on the horizon in every direction,” he told Times Higher Education, adding that Brexit, the post-18 review and also rising pension costs had significantly dented the confidence of the sector.
“There is no doubt that Brexit is a catastrophic thing, and if the consequence of Augar is a significant diminution of income, that’s [additional] concern,” he said. “We don’t know what Augar will say or how the government will respond, but it’s important that we not panic as a result of that…[However] it’s clear that the next 10 years are not going to be as benign as the past 10 years of growth, wealth and expansion.”
Sir Anton Muscatelli, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow, said a delayed Brexit alongside the delayed post-18 review had combined to create one of the most troubling times for universities in recent memory. Any reduction of tuition fees in England will mean a lowering of the fees paid by rest-of-UK students in Scotland – prompting Scottish universities to warn that they face major cuts to an essential income stream as fallout from the English post-18 review.
“The Brexit extension does not attenuate the medium-term uncertainty faced by UK universities as a result of Brexit,” Sir Anton argued, adding that “clearly the coincidence of uncertainty around Brexit and the Augar review is not helpful”.
He continued: “If our departure date from the EU is delayed beyond the end of May, governments will need to decide on how to handle EU students applying to enter UK universities from 2020-21 onwards.”
Meanwhile, the Brexit delay does nothing to resolve the question of whether the UK will be able to join the EU’s next framework programme for research, Horizon Europe, as an associated country when the programme starts in 2021, or the question of whether the UK will join the next phase of the Erasmus+ student mobility programme post-Brexit.
“The flexible extension also reduces the negotiation time for the future framework, and there are concerns that this may impact on the negotiations for association to Horizon Europe and Erasmus+,” Sir Anton said.
Moreover, the post-18 review “cannot ignore the wider context that is impacting on UK universities, such as Brexit, and the potential impact on other funding streams” that this has, he argued.
Even before the initial scheduled Brexit date of 29 March, a number of institutions had been informed by COST administrators in Brussels that leadership of collaborative projects would be removed from UK institutions and transferred to other EU members funded under the scheme.
Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, confirmed that his institution was one of those affected. “We have been told that we can no longer lead on a big project, which seems premature because the UK hasn’t left [the EU] yet,” he said. “This came as a complete surprise.”
Stefan Bouzarovki, professor of geography at the University of Manchester and chair of the COST action group for European energy poverty, said: “I am shocked. COST grants are extremely difficult to win and highly complex to manage – massive resources will have been invested in ensuring that the proper administrative support is in place at each institution. This will now be entirely lost, and there will be real job cuts due to the discontinuation of administrative support contracts.”
A COST spokesperson said: “As long as there is a risk of a no-deal Brexit within a grant period, the UK grant holders will be asked to transfer their role to a new grant holder.”
Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said: “Ongoing uncertainty around Brexit clearly makes it more difficult for universities to plan ahead. However, the latest extension is also helpful in several ways if it takes us further away from a no-deal scenario.”
Academics and university leaders will discuss how universities will internationalise and collaborate over the next 20 years at Times Higher Education’s Teaching Excellence Summit, which is taking place at Western University, in London, Ontario, Canada, from 4-6 June.