European universities hope for share of €700 billion rescue pot

Despite disappointment over Horizon Europe budget, research could still benefit from a vast pandemic resilience fund – if national governments make it a priority

August 5, 2020
A woman carries an inflatable float with the shape of a portion of pizza
Source: Getty
A woman carries an inflatable float with the shape of a portion of pizza

Universities could be in line for a slice of a European Union coronavirus recovery fund worth nearly €700 billion (£632 billion), with sector leaders urged to lobby their governments to ensure higher education and research is well represented in national bids for the money.

Many in academia were left disappointed by the results of a European Council agreement struck last month that left Horizon Europe, the EU’s research and innovation programme, with a much smaller budget than was once hoped.

But EU leaders also agreed on an unprecedented rescue fund, a mixture of loans and grants dubbed the Recovery and Resilience Facility, which is up for grabs from next year.

Because the fund is so new, Brussels insiders are scrambling to understand exactly how it will be spent – but higher education and research is certainly in the frame.

Even a 5 or 10 per cent share of the facility would be an “enormous amount of money”, said Thomas Jørgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association. By contrast, Horizon Europe’s entire budget over seven years is set to be €80.5 billion.

“I’m sure some of this money will find its way to universities in one way or another,” he said. Sector lobbying was “sensible and something that’s happening already”, he added.

National governments are drawing up plans outlining how they will spend their share, with the European Commission, the EU’s equivalent of a civil service, urging them to submit drafts as early as mid-October.

The commission will then review these plans to make sure they strengthen “growth potential, job creation and economic and social resilience” as well as contributing to Europe’s “green and digital transition”.

“Reforms and investment projects in the field of research and higher education can indeed be put forward by member states as part of such plans,” a commission spokeswoman told Times Higher Education. The commission’s own regulations repeatedly mention research, innovation and education as a goal of the fund.

The money will be allocated from 2021 to 2023, although it will not actually have to be spent in this time period, Mr Jørgensen said – funded research projects could overshoot these dates.

Although the fund is designed to help European countries worst hit by the pandemic, every country will get a share, calculated on population share, an inverse of per capita gross domestic product, and measures of economic distress.

Universities are in a good position to argue that they can boost future resilience through their research, or retrain those thrown out of work because of the pandemic, Mr Jørgensen argued.

And if governments use the fund to back research, this might be less controversial among fellow EU states – which can object to other members’ plans – than building “bridges to nowhere” and physical infrastructure, he said. “There is still the consensus that [research] is an investment,” he added.

But given how “front-loaded” the money is, “it’s not sustainable research funding”, Mr Jørgensen warned, and was no substitute for a better Horizon Europe budget.

“Research and innovation must play an important role in these national recovery and resilience plans,” said a spokeswoman for Science Europe, an umbrella body of research funders.

The criteria on which national plans are judged “should also go beyond a strict definition of immediate growth and return on investment”, she added.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Lobby for recovery funds, leaders urged

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