The UK government should extend its underwriting of European Union research grants to the bloc’s next framework programme as the country may not join it in a “timely manner” after Brexit, while some universities have modelled “catastrophic” falls in EU recruitment that would lead to course closures, according to a senior sector figure.
Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, was among witnesses who gave evidence to MPs on the House of Commons Exiting the European Union Committee on 19 June.
Asked to explain the view of her organisation on a no-deal Brexit, Ms Stern said: “It is a creeping horror that something we thought might happen by accident might actually now be the deliberate policy of government.”
UK universities are desperately hoping that the government will agree a deal with the EU for the UK to associate to the union’s next research programme, Horizon Europe, which starts in 2021, after the scheduled completion of Brexit.
Beth Thompson, head of UK and EU policy at the Wellcome Trust, said that a “fracture” with the EU in a no-deal exit would be “difficult to come back from” in the association talks.
She warned: “I don’t think we should underestimate the difficulty of doing that [reaching an association deal] in a no-deal situation...Politically, I think it would be hugely difficult to associate in a no-deal [scenario].”
Ms Stern called for the government to extend the underwrite it offered on the current EU research programme, Horizon 2020 – where the government said it would cover funding if the UK left the EU without a deal – to the successor programme.
The EU is yet to finalise the regulations for Horizon Europe and UK-EU talks on association are yet to begin. The impending choice of a new European Commission could delay the start of the talks until 2020, some fear.
“We may not be in a position to negotiate association to Horizon Europe, the next programme, in a timely manner,” said Ms Stern. “That’s starting in 2021: we should be having those conversations now. This political circumstance…means it’s unlikely we are going to do that.
“So the government’s going to have to think about, in my view, extending the guarantees they have already offered, to say to European partners: ‘If you want a UK university in your consortium…for Horizon Europe bids, we’ll put the money on the table, it’s there.’ Nobody has said that so far.”
Asked about the future of EU student recruitment after Brexit, Ms Stern said her personal belief was that UK universities would not see a “total collapse” in such recruitment.
But she added that there “will be an impact”. “I can tell you some universities have modelled what I would regard as catastrophic decreases in EU enrolment: up to 80 per cent,” Ms Stern said. “When you work that through to the bottom line, that means closing courses.”
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