The UK leaving the European Union would be a “catastrophe” for the Europe-wide programme for research and innovation.
That is the view of Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the European commissioner for research, innovation and science, whose comments come in the wake of Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum on UK membership of the EU by the end of 2017, should his party win the next general election.
The pledge has led to speculation about how a string of cross-border collaborations would be affected by the UK’s exit, with science and higher education high on the list of potential casualties.
As the second most successful country in terms of accessing EU funding, research and innovation is the area where the UK gets the “most bang for its buck” in European terms, Ms Geoghegan-Quinn said.
It has so far attracted around €4.4 billion (£3.8 billion) over the seven years of the Seventh Framework Programme, around 15 per cent of the funding.
“From the point of view of the UK’s engagement in the research and innovation programme, I think it would be a catastrophe if the UK were to leave the EU,” she told Times Higher Education.
“What it has contributed in developing the excellence of science throughout Europe has been enormously beneficial for everybody.”
She stressed, however, that for any member state, debate about membership of the EU was welcome and it was imperative that the UK be allowed to debate the issue publicly without interference.
Brussels insiders suggest that should the UK leave, research funding levels would not necessarily drop as the country would most likely be able to participate in programmes as an associate nation, as Switzerland and Israel do now.
However, as a non-member state and without European Parliament or Council representation, the UK would lose its voice in decisions over the programmes’ priorities.
“The UK would move from being at the centre of European research and potentially able to influence it to the outside,” said John Wood, secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.
Any science and technology cooperation agreement between the UK and the EU would also depend on negotiations with the remaining members, many of which are already “fed up” with the country’s attitude, said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities.
“I could imagine that the appetite to do something like that would be considerably reduced at the European side if the departure of the UK was done with a lot of fuss,” he said.
Exiting the EU would also mean greater isolation for the UK at a time when, in an effort to compete with the US and China, European research is becoming increasingly harmonised, for example through efforts to ease researchers’ movement between countries, Dr Deketelaere added.
“If you pull out of that group where that development is gradually taking place, that is not going to benefit your position,” he said.
The Future and Emerging Technologies Flagship projects in graphene and the human brain, launched earlier this week by the European Commission, are examples of European collaboration where the UK is expected to play a substantial role, Ms Geoghegan-Quinn added.
The two projects are each set to receive €1 billion (£855 million) in European and private funding over the next 10 years.
David Willetts, the universities and science minister, told THE that he remained positive that the UK would continue to “punch above its weight” in European programmes.
“The prime minister set out an argument for a new and better relationship as part of the EU: it’s not about Britain leaving,” he added.
Get out and we’ll be quids in: Departure would allow UK to charge EU students more, experts argue
Students from the European Union in the UK are currently on an equal financial footing with their domestic counterparts: they are charged the same tuition fees and can access student loans.
All this would (probably) change if the UK decided to cut its ties with Brussels.
EU students could be charged the higher fees faced by their international peers, in theory bringing a windfall for UK universities.
Writing in Times Higher Education this week, Alison Wolf, director of the new International Centre for University Policy Research at King’s College London, says that some university finance directors would be “grinning widely” at the prospect of leaving the EU.
“If we left…we could charge these students more money,” she writes.
But if fees went up, would as many continue to come?
Nigel Healey, pro vice-chancellor (internationalisation) at Nottingham Trent University, pointed out that despite the near trebling of fees in 2012-13, EU entrant numbers did not fall off a cliff.
Acceptances declined by 12.4 per cent to 43,149 (close to 7 per cent of the total) according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service - a substantial fall but not one that suggests the market is particularly price sensitive, he said.
“If EU students were required to pay the international fee, in most cases the resulting increase of £2,000-£3,000 is unlikely to terminally damage the market,” he concluded.
The other issue is access to student loans.
Professor Healey said that loans for fees and living costs are available to students from the European Economic Area, not just the EU.
The EEA is “precisely the intergovernmental free trade arrangement that the eurosceptics wish the EU had remained”, he said. So politically it is not a certainty that leaving the EU would spell the end of loans for European students.
However, should the government decide to restrict student loans to British applicants, “this would clearly have a major impact on [European] student numbers”, Professor Healey added.
Because of the additional administrative hurdles, it is more difficult to collect loan repayments from EU students than UK graduates.
As Times Higher Education revealed in August 2012, almost one-third of the former group were not repaying their loans while the authorities sought information on their status.
If they were removed from the pool of graduate debtors, the government might incur lower losses on the student loan book.