UK universities require an explanation within six weeks about how they will access projects funded by the European Union after Brexit, a leading vice-chancellor has warned.
Speaking to a meeting of Scottish MPs and university leaders in Westminster, Sir Ian Diamond, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, said that uncertainty around how UK-based researchers would participate in projects funded by Horizon 2020, the EU’s funding programme for research, which includes prestigious European Research Council grants, was causing major difficulties for institutions.
This issue had become particularly pressing because the EU has set a funding application deadline of 3 December for many Horizon 2020 projects whose funding will run beyond 29 March 2019, the date of the UK’s exit from the EU, Sir Ian told the Universities Scotland event.
His warning followed the publication by the European Commission on 6 October of new guidelines for British applicants for Horizon 2020 funding, which implies that UK researchers may be asked to leave multi-year projects early if there is no UK-EU deal on research.
The commission guidance tells British applicants: “If the United Kingdom withdraws from the EU during the grant period without concluding an agreement with the EU ensuring in particular that British applicants continue to be eligible, you will cease to be eligible to receive EU funding (while continuing, where possible, to participate) or be required to leave the project on the basis of Article 50 of the grant agreement.”
Without clarity about the long-term framework in which UK universities will work with institutions across the EU, UK researchers applying to participate in multi-university Horizon 2020 projects involving EU partners were now at a disadvantage, said Sir Ian, who is policy network chair of Universities UK.
“We cannot have answers in 2019 – we need them in six weeks,” said Sir Ian.
“We need to know what the deal is,” Sir Ian continued, adding that Scotland’s universities “urgently need clarity” to “make decisions that will ensure [they] remain at the forefront of the world’s universities”.
Explaining how Scottish universities had accessed about €250 million (£225 million) of Horizon 2020 research funding since 2014, Sir Ian insisted that “to be competitive, we need to [be able to] access that funding and build international networks”.
Guidelines published by the UK government state that it “has committed to underwriting payment of Horizon 2020 awards while the UK remains a member of the EU…even when specific projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU”. However, essential requirements for Horizon 2020 eligibility, such as the authority of the European Court of Justice, remain subject to ongoing negotiations.
Addressing the impact of the UK’s exit from the EU, Sir Ian, who is stepping down as Aberdeen’s principal next summer, said: “Brexit has the potential to impact on every area of every university’s activity.”
While he “was not seeing huge numbers of staff leaving” the UK sector because of Brexit, Sir Ian said that this was perhaps explained by the “frantic paddling” by universities to reassure EU staff about their long-term futures in the UK.
“We can only reassure people for so long,” he added, saying that the sector needed to see “the meat on the bones of what the prime minister said in her February speech”.
However, Gerry McCormac, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Stirling, said that his institution had started to lose key staff to European universities.
“They are not big numbers, but it is happening,” he said, explaining that a researcher with a £1 million European Research Council grant had recently explained that she was leaving Stirling for Germany and cited Brexit as a reason.