British universities will not immediately press the government to seek associated country status in European Union research programmes after Brexit, but will instead explore all options to find a politically acceptable solution amid signs that Theresa May wants to end the free movement of people between the UK and the EU.
One option for British universities as they attempt to shape the post-Brexit future is to seek associated country status for the EU’s research programmes, which allows non-member states to participate.
A senior figure in European higher education said that the UK would be “crazy” not to be an associated country, warning of damaging consequences to British universities’ ability to attract leading researchers if it were outside EU research programmes.
But Alistair Jarvis, deputy chief executive of Universities UK, who is coordinating its work on Brexit implications, told Times Higher Education that although “some kind of associated country status may well be the answer”, the sector should not “put all our eggs in one basket until we are absolutely clear what the pros and cons of different models are”.
He also said: “We have to at least bear in mind from the start that it is likely that the European Commission will want some kind of free movement commitment to get…close involvement.
“You’ve got to balance that against the fact that it’s likely the current government isn’t going to want to keep the current free movement arrangements.
“The political reality is that whatever situation we end up in has to square that very difficult circle.”
UK universities benefit from about £1 billion a year in funding from Horizon 2020, the EU’s current framework programme for research. One scenario could be for the UK government to replace that funding.
But Horizon 2020 supports international collaborative research projects on societal challenges, as well as funding for excellent individual researchers via the prestigious European Research Council, which the UK helped to establish.
Several non-EU nations, such as Israel, are associated to Horizon 2020 without subscribing to free movement of people with the EU.
However, after Swiss voters backed restrictions on immigration in a 2014 referendum, the EU has demanded that Switzerland continue to subscribe to free movement if it wishes to continue as an associated country in Horizon 2020 beyond February 2017.
Asked if he thought that the EU might tie associated status in research for the UK to free movement, as it did with Switzerland, Mr Jarvis said: “I think that’s a distinct possibility. Broadly speaking…the more involved you are, not just in research but a whole range of programmes…the more the EU demands that you accept free movement.”
He added: “I think some kind of associated country status may well be the answer. But currently it’s just too early to say what will be politically achievable both within the UK and in terms of what we can negotiate with European partners.”
Sir Ian Diamond, vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen and chair of UUK’s Research Policy Network, said when asked about associated status: “We need to, very quickly and very carefully, look at what the options are. There are likely to be a wider range of options, no question.”
He added: “We need to make sure that the extremely strong and positive and powerful research links that exist with Europe at the moment are not disadvantaged.”
Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, said that if the UK were not associated to EU research programmes, that would be as “damaging for you [the UK] as for us [European universities]”.
He said that if the UK were to be a non-associated third country, meaning leading researchers with ERC grants could no longer work full-time at British universities, “nobody is going to go to the UK any more. You would be crazy to do that.”
More broadly, Mr Jarvis said that UUK is looking at the question of “how can universities thrive in a post-exit Britain”, by securing policy backing for international research collaboration, making the UK attractive to international students and staff, sustainable investment in research, and mobility for UK staff and students.
He added: “I think post-exit we have to look at it more internationally and say how can we create a policy environment that allows international students and staff and international research collaboration to happen without major barriers and burdens…That includes relationships with Europe, but actually it’s the wider world.
“You could end up with a scenario where we don’t have, necessarily, particularly special status for European nationals, but we have an immigration regime overall that recognises the importance of highly skilled migrants and temporary student visitors.”