The UK’s future participation in European Union research and student mobility programmes may hinge on the government being willing to sign up to the free movement of people, while there is also a “big question mark” over the continuation of EU grant funding bids before a Brexit, according to experts.
The vote to leave the EU delivered in the UK referendum of 23 June leaves UK universities anxious about their future ability to freely recruit EU students and staff, along with their participation in future – and perhaps even current – guises of EU Framework Programmes for research and the Erasmus+ student mobility programme.
Universities UK, which mounted a high-profile campaign focusing on the benefits of EU membership, held a board meeting shortly after the referendum result was announced.
Vice-chancellors are thought to have identified their main priority as being to reassure EU nationals who are currently in the UK as staff or students – and those set to arrive in the near future – that their status and right to be in the country will not be affected.
Another key aim identified by the UUK board was to lobby the government to secure, as part of negotiations over the UK’s future relationship with the EU, “associated country” status in the EU’s research funding programmes, from which British universities currently gain about £1.2 billion a year and benefit from networks of international researchers. Non-EU member states such as Norway and Turkey currently take part in Horizon 2020 as associated countries.
Horizon 2020, the current programme, ends in 2020, when it will be succeeded by Framework Programme 9.
Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities and a professor of law at KU Leuven, noted that EU law continues to apply in the UK until the country leaves the union, following the activation of the Article 50 process.
“So that means that all applicable EU rules in the research – eg, Horizon 2020 – innovation, education fields remain applicable [until Brexit is completed],” said Professor Deketelaere.
He added: “Depending on the timing of the triggering of Article 50, the UK members will hopefully be able to participate in H2020 and Erasmus+ until the very end. The next issue will be how to link them to FP9, for which the negotiations are starting very soon.
“For dealing with that question, a lot will depend on the choice the UK makes on the nature of its future relationship with the EU, and vice versa: what kind of relationship does the EU still want with the UK?”
Ending freedom of movement of people appears to have been a key concern for at least some of those voting for the UK to leave the EU.
Professor Deketelaere said: “Free movement of people is, for the EU, such a crucial part of any kind of [wider] bilateral or associate agreement the UK would conclude with the EU that for the EU it will be unacceptable to sign any kind of agreement which excludes free movement of people.”
Lord Willetts, the former universities and science minister, said that Boris Johnson – regarded as the leading candidate to be the next prime minister – appeared to have accepted that freedom of movement would remain after a Brexit in his Daily Telegraph article of 27 June.
Lord Willetts said on research funding: “I think existing commitments, I assume, will be and should be honoured.” But he added that on “future commitments being considered” in Horizon 2020, where they involve bids for multi-year funding from the UK, there may be “a big question mark over them”, given uncertainty over how long the UK will remain in the EU.
Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said on associated country status: “There is no precedent for an EU member to leave and then become an associated member.
“So I think that the likelihood of us achieving that status and the terms under which we might achieve it will be driven by bigger political forces…how easy or difficult [the member states of the EU] wish to make it for the UK to exit and renegotiate back into a fairly favourable position.
“That is a bigger political argument than science alone, but it will very much impact on science.”
Call to delay White Paper plans and bill after Brexit vote
The European Union referendum result has sparked calls for the government to delay the proposals put forward in the higher education White Paper – which plans for the introduction of the teaching excellence framework – and the associated Higher Education and Research Bill.
Dave Phoenix, MillionPlus chair and vice-chancellor of London South Bank University, said that “universities must have a period of stability. Ministers should think long and hard about the merits of pushing ahead with the HE and Research Bill and the proposals in the BIS HE White Paper at the present time.”
Meanwhile, Stuart Croft, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, wrote in a blog: “To add the demands of that Bill to those of EU exit, at the same time, will be an intolerable burden for universities that, frankly, threatens to rock our very capacity to do everything we do to promote and extend the UK’s reputation globally.”
But senior figures at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills say that it is business as usual on both the White Paper and the bill despite the referendum result.
At Universities UK’s board meeting on 24 June, vice-chancellors are thought to have backed the progression of the bill and the White Paper – arguing that uncertainty over research funding following the referendum result makes allowing tuition fees to rise in line with inflation via the TEF an even more pressing priority.
However, other observers argue that the government is unlikely to want to devote attention to higher education in light of the huge range of issues produced by the referendum result.