Research income figures highlight Brexit vulnerability

Latest data on research grants show just how much UK institutions get from the EU

March 16, 2017
European Union (EU) flags flying
Source: iStock

One of the chief concerns for UK higher education when it comes to Brexit has been what will happen to the research funding from the European Union when the country finally leaves.

Despite the short-term pledges by the government to underwrite EU-backed research projects after Brexit – provided that the money was applied for while the UK was a member of the EU – there is still the question of the country’s future place in research programmes such as Horizon 2020.

The prime minister, Theresa May, gave universities cause for optimism in a major speech on Brexit in January, signalling that the UK would “welcome” an agreement on continuing research collaboration with Europe. But whether the EU will allow continued participation in its programmes hangs heavily on how Brexit negotiations progress.

The latest income figures for institutions, published earlier this month by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, make clear exactly how much research-intensive universities in the UK stand to lose if the country is blocked from future EU programmes.

The data, for 2015-16, show that some universities with research grant incomes above £10 million get up to a third of such money from EU government sources – a fair bit higher than the 12.1 per cent share for the whole of UK higher education, although such figures do not take into account quality-related funding for research.


Ten institutions with large shares of EU money as proportion of research income

Institution Research income from EU government bodies (£000s) Total income from research grants and contracts (£000s) EU government body funding as % of total
Aston University 5,069 14,945 33.92%
University of the Highlands and Islands 3,211 12,738 25.21%
Brunel University London 4,675 21,905 21.34%
University of Greenwich 3,071 14,848 20.68%
Plymouth University 2,903 14,099 20.59%
University of the West of England 2,429 12,030 20.19%
London School of Economics  6,097 31,503 19.35%
University of Surrey 7,537 38,946 19.35%
City, University of London 2,265 11,710 19.34%
University of Exeter 11,825 61,853 19.12%

Source: Hesa. Analysis by THE.
Note: Only universities with at least £10 million in income from research grants and contracts included.

If the spotlight is thrown on those with even larger research incomes overall (at least £30 million for research grants and contracts in 2015-16), then the shares from the EU become smaller but the actual amounts more eye-watering: the University of Sheffield received almost £29 million, representing 17 per cent of its total, and the share of research grant funding that the University of Exeter got from the EU was 19 per cent (£12 million).


Ten research heavyweights with largest shares of EU money as proportion of research grant income

Institution Income from EU government bodies (£000s) Total income from research grants and contracts (£000s) EU government body funding as % of total
London School of Economics  6,097 31,503 19.35%
University of Surrey 7,537 38,946 19.35%
University of Exeter 11,825 61,853 19.12%
University of Sussex 6,768 35,609 19.01%
Lancaster University 6,832 38,321 17.83%
Durham University 8,851 51,458 17.20%
University of Sheffield 28,871 168,531 17.13%
University of St Andrews 7,108 45,054 15.78%
University of Leeds 18,387 128,326 14.33%
University of Nottingham 17,353 124,621 13.92%

Source: Hesa. Analysis by THE.
Note: Only universities with at least £30 million in income from research grants and contracts included.

Naomi Weir, deputy director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said that the figures illustrated that particular regions and disciplines had bigger research links with the EU and that the UK government needed to take careful note of this.

She cited the example of engineering in the UK – which she said represented about 15 per cent of all income from research grants and contracts, but 20 per cent of income from EU sources – and subjects such as economics, where larger grants were available from the EU.

“Some people might be surprised by some of the figures and the dependence that different universities have on EU research funding,” Ms Weir said. “I think what this highlights is the…government needs to do a lot of work to understand precisely how…they’re going to mitigate the potential damage to different parts of the sector.”

Ms Weir also pointed out that as well as the dedicated competitive research streams such as the European Research Council, EU money for universities included structural funds such as the European Regional Development Fund.

“These are spread differently across the UK. The government will have to look at [these] effects at quite a granular level so that they are not surprised by the unintended consequences of leaving,” she said.

One of the research-focused universities with the largest shares of research money coming from EU government sources was Aston University.

The institution, which prides itself on links with industry, is involved in a number of EU-funded projects that involve businesses and universities across the Continent. They include a €3.3 million (£2.9 million) project to replicate the brain’s neural networks through 3D nanoprinting that involves research institutes and universities in Germany and Spain.

Paul Maropoulos, pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise at Aston, said that the institution’s success in winning EU funding was “testament to our close links to industry and focus on world-leading translational research”. He said that, although leaving the EU would pose challenges, he was “optimistic” that the government would protect such sources given its recent focus on a UK industrial strategy.

However, a spokesman for the LSE – which had the largest share of research grant income from the EU among the big research universities – warned that “without appropriate safeguards for research funding” Brexit could lead to a “situation where top academics choose to work in competitor countries, such as Australia, Canada or in other European countries”.

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