Brexit risks for Danish higher education and research

Danish universities are concerned about the lack of focus on higher education in the Brexit negotiations so far.

They say they are not prepared for a ‘hard Brexit’ and fear this will have serious implications for Danish higher education and research.

And they believe Brexit will involve both the UK crashing out of Erasmus+ and making it harder for staff and students to work and study in the UK; and it will also mean a significant intellectual loss for Danish research institutions.

These are among the findings of a two-part report published by Danish think tanks DEA and EUROPA, commissioned by the Danish Agency for Science and Higher Education under the higher education ministry.

The report, released in June, provides an analysis of the impact that the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union will have on Danish research and higher education, and what options there will be for collaboration with UK institutions in the future.

The report focuses upon cooperation within Horizon 2020 (H2020), the Erasmus+ programme and previous research and framework programmes, and identifies the extent of collaboration between Danish and UK institutions in these programmes.

It examines the possible models for the Brexit negotiations, interviewing 39 experts in research and higher education, each with interviews of 45 to 60 minutes on different aspects of Brexit. It also brings a statistical analysis of the level of collaboration between Danish and UK higher education institutions.

The UK is a “net-recipient” of H2020 funding. In the previous EU framework programme FP7 (2007-13), it is estimated that the UK received €8.6 billion (US$10.1 billion) from the programme, while contributing €5.4 billion (US$6.3 billion).

UK institutions are one of the main collaborative partners for Danish institutions in H2020, as they were in FP6 and FP7. In H2020, 45% of Danish funding was received in projects that included at least one UK partner institution.

The proportion is especially high in projects within research infrastructure (94%) and space (79%). Altogether 1,468 UK partner institutions are participating in 579 projects funded up to now with Danish partners in the H2020 programme.

In H2020 the major UK participation is with the Technical University of Denmark (€55 million or US$64.4 million), Copenhagen University (€37.3 million or US$43.8 million) and Aarhus University (€33.1 million or US$38.9 million).

“With more than 3,000 Danish students at UK higher education institutions in 2014 – and an unknown – but large number of Danish researchers that are collaborating with or employed by UK research institutions, even a small change in the regulations for moving to the UK will create problems for Danish students, teachers and researchers,” the report states.

“While both in the UK and in Brussels there is great interest in the establishment of an agreement for collaboration within research and higher education, these areas have not been in focus in the Brexit negotiations so far,” the report said.

“That is bringing a risk that there will not be time enough to make an agreement on these – in particular for Denmark – important areas [during the negotiations],” the report said.

The report finds that:
  • • With Brexit Denmark will lose a collaborative partner that through the years has been working for a continued ambitious European research budget and for excellence in the EU research programmes. Denmark will hence come under pressure to find new alliance partners that can fill the vacuum after the Britons.

  • • The Danish higher research and education institutions are not prepared for a ‘hard Brexit’ [with no agreement on research and higher education]. If the negotiations fail, this will have serious implications for Danish research and higher education institutions.

  • • In the research area, limited UK participation in Horizon Europe means that Danish research institutions are losing a central financial and juridical framework for collaboration with UK researchers and companies. The present financial agreement is limited and can in no way substitute FP9.

  • • At the same time Brexit will mean a significant intellectual loss for the Danish research institutions. In order for the Danish share of FP9 funding to be increased, Danish researchers and companies would need to find new and excellent collaborative partners.

  • • A ‘hard Brexit’ could mean that Danish research institutions might possibly recruit more top researchers currently employed at UK universities but wanting to remain within EU research programmes. Simultaneously, Brexit could imply that researchers, research institutions and companies in third countries might now be on the lookout for alternatives to UK institutions that can give them access to the EU inner market.

  • • It is believed that there is a strong likelihood that the UK will withdraw from the Erasmus+ collaboration. For higher education this might mean that the grants for UK institutions are withdrawn and that this will lead to lower student mobility from Denmark to the UK. For the professional higher education institutions in Denmark today, there are no alternatives to Erasmus+ exchanges with the UK.
The 39 interviews confirm the impression that research and higher education are important areas for Denmark in the Brexit negotiations.

The respondents mention the UK along with other countries with deep interest in research as “friends of excellence”, like the Netherlands, Sweden and Ireland, while there are less coherent opinions about Germany and France’s prioritisation [of research excellence].

In general, the Danish respondents said that it would be an advantage to have a stable, binding and involving agreement on research and higher education with the UK. But an agreement not based on mutual rights and commitments will not be in Denmark’s interests.

As one respondent said: “A loose agreement with a large country with no formal association will be like having an elephant in the glass shop.”

Several of the respondents said that it will be an advantage for Denmark to keep firmly to an EU27 attachment and avoid “cherry-picking”.

Commenting on the report, Professor Jens Oddershede, department of physics, chemistry and pharmacy at the University of Southern Denmark, told University World News: “It will be a great loss for European science if it becomes a hard Brexit. It is not only a question of loss of EU funding for the UK – and for Denmark as well. No, it is the more basic question of loss of the collaboration between scientists across national borders that is and always will be the driving force of progress in international science.

“No one country is large enough to drive this development on its own. I sincerely hope that this issue will be at the core of the discussions that are currently taking place between responsible parties both in London and Brussels.”