Which universities would lose out from Brexit?

Data show deep dependence on EU funds by some institutions and subjects

May 25, 2016
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Break down: if voters opt for Brexit in the referendum on 23 June, some universities, especially newer institutions, may experience a termination in crucial research funding

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Eighteen UK institutions face the prospect of more than half their research funding from competitive grants being wiped out if the country votes to leave the European Union, new data show.

A Times Higher Education analysis of detailed data behind a report warning of the dangers Brexit poses to research reveals the extent to which some universities and subject areas have become dependent on EU funding.

Newer universities tend to be among those most exposed, although bigger universities with larger research budgets also rely on EU sources for a sizeable minority of their funds.

Almost a quarter of the research funding from competitive grants to the University of Cambridge comes from the EU, while the proportion at the University of Oxford is about a fifth. 

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The proportion for the London School of Economics was 36 per cent; at Newcastle University it was 32 per cent; and it was between 30 and 25 per cent for King’s College London and the universities of Aberdeen, Exeter and Birmingham.

Roderick Watkins, deputy vice-chancellor (research and innovation) at Anglia Ruskin University, the fourth most dependent university, said that EU funds had been “invaluable” to recent research growth.

“We would certainly be anxious about what effect a vote to leave the EU might have on those funding streams,” he said.

In addition to university-level reliance on the EU, the data show heavy overall subject-level dependence on EU funds. Education, law and legal studies, philosophy, ethics and religion, environmental, information and computing sciences are all more than a third dependent on EU funds. 

Among the least reliant areas were chemical, physical and mathematical sciences, although these still received about 15 per cent of their funds from the EU. 

The data are from the consultancy Digital Science, whose report, Examining Implications of Brexit for the UK Research Base, looked at research money won from UK and EU sources over the past decade.

Much turns on whether a post-Brexit government – most likely a Conservative one that could be led by Boris Johnson – would compensate organisations that lost out.

Daniel Hook, managing director of Digital Science, told THE that “if we were to leave the EU, there’s no guarantee it [funding] would automatically go away”, not least because some of it was already committed as part of multi-year projects.

But he warned that “if we were to Brexit, we’d need a three-year plan to replace the money”.

The money saved from the UK’s £8 billion annual net contribution to the EU would need to be reinvested in areas that would lose out, he said. “I don’t think there’s anything else out there,” he warned.

Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, said that in 2015-16, only 40 per cent of the institution’s research funds came from the EU, adding that he thought that “the shortfall resulting from a Brexit would eventually be made up in other ways”.

But nonetheless, a Brexit would be “catastrophic” for UK universities because it would hinder research collaboration and make it more difficult to recruit a “culturally diverse” student body.

Mr Hook said that it would be “naive” to blame universities for becoming too dependent on the EU. “Universities will go wherever they can to improve their funding position,” he said. “Yes, we’ve become dependent on the money, but because we’ve been very successful at getting it.”

A more reasonable criticism of the UK research system was that it had underfunded certain areas, such as economics and the environment, because of high EU support, he added.

Pro-Brexit campaigners have argued that the UK could still be part of the EU’s research system like Norway and Switzerland if it left the union. The Digital Science report shows that these two countries have received £2.5 billion collectively over the past decade, with non-EU countries receiving 7.2 per cent of all funding. The UK has received 16 per cent, one percentage point behind Germany, the largest beneficiary.

Mr Hook argued that Norway and Switzerland were currently “under the radar” because they took relatively little from the collective EU research pot.

If the UK, a much bigger research player, left the EU but continued to receive more than it paid in for research, then this would be politically unacceptable. “How would you defend that to the existing members of the EU?” he asked. 


10 campuses counting on EU cash

Institution Percentage of competitive grant research income from EU
Southampton Solent University 91.35%
University of Bedfordshire 91.06%
Teesside University 76.25%
Anglia Ruskin University 74.70%
Coventry University 71.83%
Middlesex University 68.83%
University of Wolverhampton 67.77%
Edinburgh Napier University 65.38%
University of Greenwich 64.28%
St George’s, University of London 59.51%

Digital Science. Figures relate to research income from competitive grants from EU and UK sources for 2006-15 inclusive

Vulnerable subjects

Subject Percentage of competitive grant research income from EU
Education 43.13%
Law and legal studies 38.96%
Philosophy, ethics and religion 36.07%
Environmental sciences 33.78%
Information and computing sciences 33.76%
Economics 31.90%
History and archaeology 28.11%
Psychology and cognitive sciences 25.94%
Technology 25.56%
Language communication and culture 24.02%

Digital Science. Figures relate to research income from competitive grants from EU and UK sources for 2006-15 inclusive


Print headline: Brexit: which institutions would be hardest hit?

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