The heavy cost to research of ending EU collaboration

Taking stock of the effect of Brexit on higher education and research is a continuing process.

In June 2021, six months after the UK European Union Withdrawal Agreement Act came into operation, experts at the European University Association (EUA) concluded that academic cooperation between the European Union and the United Kingdom had been generally positive.

Although the UK rejection of Erasmus participation was a disappointment, there had been a resolution on important technical barriers to cooperation.

But in an academic study just published in the Journal of European Public Policy, we make a starker assessment on post-Brexit policy for higher education and research than real world actors such as the EUA who have been forced to look for the bright side.

In our view UK higher education has already been de-Europeanised. University-linked research is still holding out hope for readmission to the Horizon programme.

We come to these conclusions after looking at the policy trajectories for higher education and research during the UK’s 47 years of membership and the two facets of post-Brexit policy: the divergence outlined in the Withdrawal Agreement Act, 2020, detailing the legal consequences of leaving the EU; and the political choice made by the Conservative governments since the 2016 referendum to take a hard line against EU offers of cooperation.

During the UK’s membership years, the education and research sectors had in common a feature that has not weighed much in the many quantitative assessments of Brexit: those 47 years of cooperation and collaboration socialised generations of academics and researchers.

The EU gave them access to new policy platforms and networks, some with a wider and intergovernmental reach. The EU was also a source of ring-fenced funding beyond the reach of the UK Treasury.

Different policy trajectories

Research and higher education had different policy trajectories which are reflected in the present situation.

European collaborative research had been practised long before the first framework programme for research was established in 1984. It was followed by the Single European Act, 1986, incorporating research, and the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which created the EU.

The treaty made research a shared competence of the union and member states. While boosting research opportunities and funding, EU policy was explicitly built on national scientific and managerial capacity. This was a process that UK scientists helped to institutionalise. It was a success for what the experts describe as supranational policy-making in a multi-layered system of governance.

A measure of researchers’ standing is that when the European Research Area was created in 2000, it contained provisions for the European Research Council as an ‘excellence’ funder for individual investigators and their research teams, rather than the more usual EU pattern of fair shares to member states. This matched UK policy thinking on competitiveness.

The seven-year Horizon programmes of 2013 and 2020 have gone from strength to strength in scope, in budgets and reputational terms, making the EU a pole of research productivity.

The development of higher education within the European Economic Community (EEC), and then the European Union, has always been more constrained by politics. In the 1970s the first steps were taken when ministers agreed to cooperation between national systems under the European Community umbrella, while specifically excluding law on ‘education as such’.

The next decade was marked by conflicts when the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Mediterranean member states argued that EEC action on education could be legitimated if regarded as training (an outcome legitimated in 1985 by the then European Court of Justice). The Erasmus programme became possible; but just as important, it was able to build on the template of the experimental university-to-university cooperation of the 1970s.

In 1992, the Maastricht Treaty smoothed the path of education policy-making. It asserts that the EU cannot make law on education, but the commission was able to propose common initiatives to increase quality. The more positive political climate was reinforced after 1991 with the downfall of communist rule, and by the neo-liberal turn to competitiveness strategies which stimulated a knowledge economy strategy.

The intergovernmental Bologna Process of 1999, which would lead to the creation of a European Higher Education Area in 2010, was an early sign. In 2000, the Lisbon Agenda of the European Council, which represents heads of government, created a building block to reinforce cooperation. Its introduction of an open method of coordination (OMC) was widely welcomed as a non-legislative solution for developing and accessing policy.

During most of these years the UK government’s stance on EEC and EU higher education policy remained, as an actor in the early years said, “benevolent but watchful”; meaning, ready to pounce if the UK government thought the lack of treaty law on education had been infringed.

A more positive language was evident in the Tony Blair years, 1997-2007, with explicit encouragement for the Bologna Process and OMC, and for strengthening of European expertise within the civil service. The higher education community represented by Universities UK also had a common centre of expertise with the government. British experts were prominent in developing some of the Bologna instruments then taken up by the commission.

There was a marked political change from 2010. The Conservative party came to power, under the prime ministership of David Cameron, in coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats. The period was, however, more marked by the influence of the Eurosceptic wing of Cameron’s party than that of the coalition partners.

Civil service expertise on Europe was downgraded. There was a focus on undesirable ‘mission creep’ since, as higher education and research were integrated into EU general growth strategies, there was spillover from more general EU legislation.

Ideas which were to form the basis of post-Brexit policies began to circulate.

The end of four freedoms

The Withdrawal Act of 2020 predictably marked the end of the EU’s four freedoms in the UK: freedom of movement of goods, capital, people and services. This had marked effects on the British university community. But it also introduced restrictions of different sorts on British-based EU citizens and on EU academics and students, who in the past had sought out British universities.

The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, 2020, the basis for political agreements, left scope for different solutions. Boris Johnson took a minimalist line. Then, due to his threats to break the Withdrawal Act obligations over Northern Ireland, he faced retaliation from the EU which refused the UK potential access to Horizon.

With a new prime minister in place, Rishi Sunak’s secretary of state for science and technology, Michelle Donelan, was sounding both supportive and threatening when it came to Horizon after she met the EU research and innovation commissioner in Brussels earlier this month. The UK will pull out if the terms of association are not in the UK’s interest.

The UK’s specific decision to cut itself off from Europe has been a boost for existing higher education strategies which combine soft diplomacy and commerce. This is seen by the university community as some compensation for the unexpected decision of the UK to drop out of the multi-pronged Erasmus programme just before finalising the Withdrawal Act, and its replacement by the narrower Turing programme focused on outward student mobility.

English-speaking countries are now more heavily represented than they were. Of EU countries, only Spain, France, Germany and Italy attracted significant numbers of the UK students awarded grants in 2022.

One priority of the UK government’s internationalisation strategy of 2021 is to boost the export of education services classified as transnational education to the tune of £35 billion (US$43 billion) by 2030, a sum which approaches the UK’s annual budget for universities (£43.9 billion in 2020-21).

The other is for an annual international student recruitment target of 600,000, which has already been passed. Agencies are expected to focus on the world’s new middle classes in India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Nigeria.

With the prospect of global trade agreements in mind, the government has been creating higher education regulations in support. One example is the International Qualified Teacher Status (iQTS).

The research path is once again different. The Johnson ambition that the UK should become a science superpower has resulted in a new agency, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), to provide long-term funding to support “visionary, high-risk, high pay-off scientific, engineering and technology ideas” outside the sphere of the national research councils, now grouped under the umbrella of UK Research and Innovation, and created by the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act.

But with continuing uncertainty about British participation in Horizon, the government has not fully responded to an important report it called for from two senior researchers on the choices facing post-Brexit governments. It has, however, just released a prospectus for a £14.6 billion British alternative to be called Pioneer if EU talks fail.

The plan has had an equivocal reception from the UK science establishment, which still firmly favours re-joining Horizon.

All the above data led us to conclude in our article that the referendum had provided the political opportunity to turn Eurosceptic ideas into policy for higher education, which is always relatively amenable to government policy. However, the research sector has provided a clearer demonstration of the risks and the costs of destroying the spirit and practice of collaboration enjoyed within the EU by the higher education and research sectors.

Anne Corbett is senior associate at LSE Consulting and Linda Hantrais is visiting professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s International Inequalities Institute. This article draws on ‘Higher education and research in the Brexit policy process’, a contribution to a special issue of the Journal of European Public Policy on post-Brexit policies. It is free to read here.