British, European universities pledge post-Brexit collaboration

For higher education and research, Britain’s exit from Europe on Friday 31 January 2020 was a folly. Universities have been doing what they can to mitigate damaging impacts on academic mobility and research, including a Friday statement committing Universities UK and three dozen major national and international organisations to maintaining relationships.

The organisations called on their governments to make higher education and research collaboration a priority during negotiations on future UK-European Union relations.

The Universities UK-coordinated initiative was one among a flurry of announcements and reports that appeared on Friday, repeating the determination of British universities to continue collaborating with Europe and looking forward at what comes next, especially negotiations during the 2020 transition period that will thrash out details of the British withdrawal.

The Universities UK initiative

Universities UK says on its website that the Friday statement is backed by 36 major domestic and international organisations including the European University Association, 24 national university representative bodies, the Confederation of British Industry and many other bodies across Europe.

“These groups are asking governments and the European Commission to ensure a swift agreement on the UK’s full association to Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe before the end of 2020,” Universities UK says.

The statement reads: “We, the major bodies representing, and partnering with, science and higher education across the UK and Europe, are united in agreeing that we wish to continue to work together following the departure of the UK from the European Union.

“We call on our national governments and the European Commission to act on the commitments of the political declaration and work swiftly to agree a basis for continued collaboration through the UK's full association to Horizon Europe and Erasmus+.”

The UK remains a full member of Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 during the transition period with the EU that will last to 31 December 2020.

UK participation in Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ – which both begin new programmes on 1 January 2021 – will be part of the negotiations between the UK and the EU. Universities are calling on the UK government to prioritise negotiating continued UK participation – and to explore national replacement schemes “if that cannot be achieved”.

Negotiation might be harder than expected

Last week the European University Association or EUA – the largest body representing universities in Europe, with 850 members in 48 countries – published a brief, Brexit – What now for universities, which it says is useful for universities in the UK and Europe. The EUA report is upbeat – and indeed, Britain’s involvement in European higher education and research looks highly likely to happen in one way or another.

On 28 January the Wellcome Trust and Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank, released a somewhat more sobering report, “A post-Brexit agreement for research and innovation”, on a simulated negotiation process to create a post-Brexit research and innovation agreement.

“Our exercise demonstrated that it is possible to reach agreement among experts on the terms of an EU-UK research and innovation deal,” the groups said. “However, the project also revealed that some elements of an agreement may be harder to negotiate than expected.”

“A shared purpose and belief in the importance of research and innovation is not enough to see a deal come to fruition. It is also necessary to overcome a number of political and technical challenges.”

The simulation highlighted areas for attention that Wellcome and Bruegel hope will create a roadmap for UK and EU post-Brexit discussions.

First, UK association to Horizon Europe needs to be a core part of a research and innovation agreement. Second, the EU moving away from a GDP-based financial formula could make it easier for the UK to agree terms, as would inclusion of a ‘correction mechanism’ to tackle any ‘significant imbalance’ between what an associated country pays and money it receives.

Third: “Suitable precedent was found to provide the UK with an appropriate degree of influence over the Horizon Europe programme, without needing to grant the UK formal voting rights.” Fourth, facilitating the exchange of research workers and their direct families was essential to a research and innovation agreement.

Fifth, finding suitable wording to reflect views on common standards was difficult. “The UK team sought to preserve UK sovereignty while recognising the practical benefits of common standards for research purposes. The EU team aimed to ensure high standards in the UK after leaving the EU,” the report says. Finally, “due to its importance to research, the teams also agreed a backstop mechanism for the sharing of personal data”.

“The UK and EU have two main options,” write Wellcome and Bruegel: “Either wait for the future overall shape of their relationship to be agreed first or pursue without delay a standalone research and innovation agreement.” With Horizon Europe due to begin on 1 January 2021, there was “significant risk” that an agreement will not be in place in time.

Any discontinuity in the UK participation in Horizon would be “highly damaging to research and innovation in the UK and the EU”. Work should start on a standalone research and innovation agreement as soon as possible.

European University Association on board

In an opinion piece in Research Professional on 26 January, EUA President Michael Murphy says the stance of British universities since the Brexit referendum in 2016 has been that British higher education “will not leave the European family of universities”.

“There is strong evidence that these bonds can remain intact. But we must act swiftly.”

After the 2016 referendum, it soon became clear that research and education were areas in which both the UK and EU wanted cooperation. Education and research collaboration has become commonly cited in speeches by UK politicians and EU officials – including recently by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“The Political Declaration setting out the future relationship between the UK and the EU clearly states the ambition that the UK will participate in EU programmes, including Horizon Europe and Erasmus. The draft legislation for these programmes provides a flexible legal basis on which this participation can be built,” Murphy notes.

“But universities must stay vigilant. Due to the delayed Brexit process, time is short. There are only 11 months to sign association agreements to EU programmes, and these months coincide with a complex and busy period in Brussels.

“Many questions are still open, such as how to align rules on student and researcher mobility at a time when the UK is revisiting its immigration regime.”

Aside from participation in EU programmes, the UK needed to remain an integral part of the European Education Area and the European Research Area.

“The loss of opportunities created by leaving one of the largest communities of researchers, innovators and educators in the world would be too high,” said Murphy. At the same time: “The UK’s leading position in Europe makes it an essential partner. It still provides the most prolific research environments and is by far the most important destination for mobile students; without it, the EU will be weaker.

“So the UK needs the EU, and the EU needs the UK. Universities know it, but with a hectic year ahead, we must keep the goal of association to EU programmes and integration in the European Research and Education Areas in the front of our minds – and especially in the minds of political leaders.”