UK research coordinating role hit by Brexit fears

Continental universities are becoming wary of involving United Kingdom institutions in new bids and proposals for collaborative research programmes funded by the European Commission for fear that their chances of success will be damaged by Brexit.

That was the stark warning from the vice-rector of Portugal's University of Porto, Associate Professor Pedro Teixeira, when he joined a panel discussion on the future of European and UK higher education at the Centre for Global Higher Education's annual conference on 1 March in London.

Teixeira said: “In my institution, if we are reapplying for joint European programmes that were coordinated by British universities, the new proposal will not be coordinated by a UK university.”

Instead, a university from another country coordinates the bid and an extra university is found “just in case the British will not be counted after 2018 or '19 or whenever” and the bid fails to reach the required number of partners from different countries.

Teixeira regretted the development and said partnerships led by British universities “always got a very significant share” of funding from European resaerch framework programmes and UK universities had a reputation for being “very good at coordinating research proposals”.

But realignment is already underway, with Germany becoming the country of choice for many looking for research partners in projects such as those funded by Horizon 2020, the large European Union research and innovation programme.

Dr Anne Corbett, associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said she had heard a lot of rumours about British researchers being cut out of European collaborative projects, but up to now there had been little hard evidence.

“In the end it really depends on the attitude the British government takes in negotiations with the 27 other EU countries,” said Corbett, who echoed the views of former UK prime minister John Major who urged “more charm and less cheap rhetoric” in the Brexit talks.

Corbett pleaded for more European understanding and solidarity, saying the UK still shared democratic values and a common understanding of what higher education is for, with other European nations.

Christine Musselin, a sociologist and research director at Sciences Po in France, said: “More solidarity [with UK universities] would be great. But I am not sure it will happen.”

She said French higher education reactions to Brexit ranged from “Great – now we will get more of the pot” to trying to entice UK institutions to move to France.

Solidarity not dead

Solidarity was not dead, said Musselin, adding: “We have good colleagues in the UK and we don’t want to lose the cooperation we have with them because of Brexit and we cannot imagine that all the UK people will come to other parts of Europe.”

She contrasted the UK situation with the large numbers of “excellent Italian colleagues” who are applying for positions in France because they don’t see any future for themselves in Italy.

Musselin asked what was she do? Express solidarity? “As a vice-president for research, I recruit them. I don’t tell them to go back to their own country.”

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist who runs De la Cour Communications. He regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website.