The European University Association, or EUA, sees positive signals on United Kingdom participation in Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ in Prime Minister Theresa May’s statement and parliamentary answers on the UK’s approach to exiting the European Union, despite her clear indication that she will seek a “full” Brexit in negotiations.
But other experts interpret the speech as signalling a willingness to work more closely with the EU in other ways to build up Europe’s science infrastructure.
During her speech on 17 January, May made it clear that the UK will leave the single market in order to gain control over immigration, but in a section devoted to science and innovation she said: “We will welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives.”
Thomas Jørgensen, the EUA’s senior policy coordinator and main staff expert on Brexit, told University World News that this statement and her answers in parliament were “very significant”.
“If you put the pieces together [of what she said] you don’t see big stumbling blocks, especially for Horizon 2020 collaboration on innovation. In her Q&A session in parliament she said the UK would like to pay into specific programmes. That’s all you need for Horizon 2020.”
Jørgensen said May was more enigmatic on Erasmus+ and student and staff exchange but she did say she wanted the UK to be a magnet for talent and “if you are optimistic you could interpret that as the role that Erasmus+ plays in creating a pipeline, but that is pure speculation”.
“The good thing for the sector is that Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ are not linked to the single market. Those are things you can buy into if you are not in the EU and lots of countries do – Turkey, for example.”
He said: “This is not cherry-picking, it is daily business. Cherry-picking in the single market is a different story. But any deal agreed has to be inferior to full membership. So you can’t decide how much you will spend on this. You will just be presented with an invoice. That is what ‘inferior’ means.”
“I don’t see why a player like Britain should be treated differently than Armenia in this, certainly not worse.”
However, Mike Galsworthy, programme director of Scientists for EU, is less convinced that negotiations on Horizon 2020 will bring full access because it would be too disruptive for the UK to play within the system without freedom of movement, even if it involved some sort of visa for scientists.
“The remaining 27 countries have an interest in increasing their control where the UK was dominant, on talent programmes on commercialisation of technologies and in coordinating teams. They want the UK still strongly involved but probably not coordinating, commercialising and drawing as much talent as before, especially if the UK were seen as playing by different rules.”
With Horizon 2020 issues of freedom of movement and high payments required from non-members, especially those with big gross domestic products and big in population, he says the UK “may have to take a slight hit” but can counter balance by “offering to help market European science globally and getting more involved in dozens of other European research structures where you don’t have to be EU members”.
“When you do that it draws investment, collaborations and talent into the continent and that benefits the EU and the UK, so there is a strong need to expand on the EU-UK partnership.”
UK universities encouraged
Universities UK said it was encouraging to hear that the prime minister would like to see the UK continue to play a role in certain EU programmes.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "We welcome the prime minister's commitment to ensuring that the UK remains open to international talent. It was good also to hear her talking about the international strength of our university system and the importance of continuing to collaborate in cutting-edge research and innovation.”
Among the key issues in her 12-point plan for the UK’s exit, May showed appreciation for the UK’s academic and scientific communities, the EUA said.
May said the UK would welcome agreement to continue collaborating with European partners on major initiatives in science, research and technology and did not exclude paying into European programmes.
The EUA said it stands behind this viewpoint and sincerely hopes this will translate into the UK’s continued association to the EU’s Framework Programmes for research.
For the EUA, Jørgensen said the speech was vague on the movement of researchers, especially on EU citizens who are in the UK, which is a substantial share of university staff in the UK. On this point the UK appears to be seeking reciprocity. “This is not unreasonable. It is an opening at least. If you look at it from the researchers’ point of view, the EU position on researchers is very positive.”
He said they were moving from the campaign phase, where both sides were screaming at each other, into a negotiation phase where they have to look at how to get the best possible deal in the framework they have. “That outcome is not too grim for research and higher education. It can still go wrong, but if there is goodwill on both sides there shouldn’t be any problems.”
The EUA said it had been working actively, long before the Brexit vote, to keep universities in the UK as close as possible to the rest of Europe in the event of an exit from the Union. The association will continue its efforts in the months and years to come to support these close links.
For Universities UK, Dandridge said for universities to play a central role in the UK's economic success and global influence outside the EU, they will require “reforms to our current immigration system to ensure that the most talented international students, researchers and university staff can come to the UK and are welcomed, regardless of their nationality".
She said the UK university system’s world-leading position was due to a great extent to its ability to attract talented students and staff from around the world and the world-class research it produces with international partners.
There are currently nearly half a million international students at UK universities, with over 125,000 of them from EU countries. And 16% of academic staff at UK universities are from EU countries, while 12% are from non-EU countries.
"Brexit negotiations must ensure that the UK is still open to EU and international students and that we can continue to access valuable and collaborative European research networks,” Dandridge said.
Risks to sector
Director General of the Russell Group, Dr Wendy Piatt, said May’s was the most detailed account of the government’s plans to have been made public so far but ministers must go into this process with their eyes open to the risks the higher education and research sector is facing.
“Ensuring universities can continue to attract, recruit and retain highly-skilled staff and students will be critical to supporting excellent research, innovation and education across the UK.”
She said: “We want to ensure our universities can continue to cooperate easily and effectively with international partners and, as the prime minister said, ‘remain at the forefront of collective endeavours’.”
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