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by Tom Freeman
06 July 2017
Universities brace for Brexit impact

Universities brace for Brexit impact

Science and research - credit Holyrood

David Davis entered official negotiations in Brussels with many questions hanging over his head. What was the UK Government’s attitude to Brexit? Did it have a mandate to pursue that agenda? Was it really prepared to walk away from talks with nothing if offered a bad deal? How involved would the devolved nations be?

Perhaps it is understandable, then, that there was little mention of higher education and innovation in the build up.

Yet the impact of Brexit on science and research could be very significant indeed.

The hard line taken by the UK Government on immigration has been met with dismay by the sector in Scotland, with students, staff and principals warning about the potential impact on collaboration and the mobility of talent.

And through the Horizon 2020 research and development programme, billions of Euros of research funding is at stake.

Horizon 2020 has been the biggest ever Europe-wide R&D funding programme, distributing nearly €80bn of funding in the seven years to 2020. 

As well as clearly furthering science and driving economic growth, Horizon 2020 was designed to create a single market of knowledge exchange.

In other words, informed by the priorities of political leadership Horizon 2020 funds the big ideas to tackle the greatest societal challenges of the continent, like ageing populations and climate change.

And just before this ambitious programme is due to close, Britain will be pulling out of the EU. Consultation for the direction of its successor scheme, due to launch in 2021, will take place as the UK is wrestling with its exit strategy.

Just how involved will Scotland or the UK be in the future of research? How will it be funded? And will international students and staff play their part in our universities?

A universities source tells Holyrood that even if the UK Government is successful in negotiating a special bespoke deal to allow continued participation in the big European research projects, it will take time, and while that is happening, interim stop-gap funding would be needed to avoid a “catastrophic” shortfall in funding.

And if the UK enjoys a ‘third country’ status, there will probably still be big parts of European Research Council and Horizon 2020 funding that the UK can’t get access to.
Some say the sector is already feeling the effects of Brexit. 

“I was very happy to see that academics and researchers in the UK are – because of Brexit – considering coming to France to work,” French president Emmanuel Macron told reporters follwingr his first visit to Downing Street after his election.

There has been some anecdotal evidence of funding bids dropping UK partners, while the last round of European Research Council grants did mark a drop in successful UK ones despite it being traditionally successful territory.

And for the first time in nearly a decade, the number of EU students applying to British universities has dropped by seven per cent for the upcoming academic year.

Scotland, which recorded a majority support for remaining in the EU, has seen all political leaders express a commitment to welcoming international staff and students.

While warm words may not secure a different immigration policy for Scotland in the future, deliver a special deal for Scotland in student exchange programme,Erasmus or participation in research programmes, the messages have been appreciated, according to Professor in law, Paul James Cardwell at Strathclyde University.

Indeed, he tells Holyrood it was a major factor in him joining the university from the University of Sheffield in February.

“The EU referendum was a shock but not totally unexpected. I am married to an EU citizen and my own EU citizenship is very important to me. I have lived and worked on the continent and I want to have that option again in the future as well as for my family,” he says.

“Given the referendum result in Scotland and the statements by the Scottish Government, it was clear to me that there might be a greater chance of retaining my EU citizenship by moving to Scotland. This definitely formed part of my decision to move to Strathclyde. 

“Since I started my job in Scotland, I have been impressed at the level of engagement of the government with academics on the questions raised by Brexit. The immigration debate is also very different to that in England and the positive impact of EU citizens and other migrants is recognised much more strongly.

“I am not sure at present whether Scotland will eventually gain powers over immigration, and even less so over citizenship, since these relate to devolution settlements which are only partly related to Brexit. But I am hopeful that Scotland’s views will play a strong role in the negotiations.”

Whether Scotland will be represented in Brexit talks remains to be seen, with MEP Iain Duncan’s elevation to the Lords sold as an opportunity for the interests of Scots fisheries and agriculture to be heard.

There is no doubt, however, that Scotland has also benefitted from European funding when it comes to research and innovation.

Renewable energy in particular has enjoyed financial support as Scotland has become more aligned with European priorities in this area over recent years. Medical research, including the use of technology in health, has aligned itself with the priorities of Europe too.

It is perhaps surprising, then, with such large sums of investment involved, that it has not played a bigger role in the debate before and after the EU membership referendum and in the general election that served as a prologue to Brexit negotiations.

Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen and science campaigner, told Holyrood last November that Brexit had put a “black cloud” over Scotland’s research sector.

Seven months later and with Brexit negotiations upon us, he says little has changed. He points to the way Switzerland was forced to reconsider new restrictions to immigration after being threatened with expulsion from Horizon 2020.

“In a sense you could say, well, if we’re going to go down that route, like the Swiss, to get a special bespoke deal, it’s going to take years and there’s no guarantee of its success. 

“That might be the best we’ll ever get out of it, that we’ll get some bespoke deal where we’d still get access to funding. But still, we’re not going to be at the top table. We’re not going to be determining policy.”

Pennington tells Holyrood it has been “very, very important” for the UK to have input into research policy.

“Along with two or three other countries in Europe we have that influence in terms of driving research policy, and because we’re very good at competing for the funds we get more than our fair share of the funding as well. 

“That could all fall away if we don’t get the right sort of deal. At the moment, things haven’t changed since November on that. We’re in a bit of a dark place, really.”

Pennington points to a lack of science in the Queen’s Speech as a symptom of how far it has fallen down the political agenda compared to agriculture and fisheries when it comes to Brexit.
“Science seems to have faded. It never even got bright as a big issue, which it should be.”

In fact, the Queen’s Speech did contain a commitment to invest in the space industry in an attempt to consolidate the UK’s position in Europe for commercial space travel. 
The spaceflight bill will make it easier for scientists to launch flights from UK soil.

Presumably the commitment reflects the fact Brexit will not affect the UK’s membership of the European Space Agency. 

Alba Orbital, a Glasgow-based start-up developing a miniature research satellite, has benefitted from a post-Brexit drop in the pound but warns the long-term impact on immigration and Horizon 2020 funding will make things difficult in the future.

Andrew Paliwoda, business development manager, told SpaceNews: “In the medium to long term, it has the potential to be disastrous for emerging players.”

He added: “Freedom of movement and the single market are strategically important to our company. Brexit will clip our wings and make us less competitive on the international market unless measures are taken for a ‘soft Brexit’.”

Pennington, too, advocates maintaining close ties with Europe when it comes to research because it would be a benefit to all. He points to research into cancer and climate change as examples.
“In terms of outputs and impacts, we’re better per head of population than any other European country. There are others that are very good – Switzerland is one of them – but we’re such a big player that for suddenly the door to be closed on us would be bad for the public interest. Not just the British public, but the world’s public interest.”

The UK Government has hinted it would pick up the bill from any funds lost as a result of Brexit. In an interview with Holyrood’s sister title, House Magazine, Universities Minister Jo Johnson boasted of “the single biggest increase in R&D expenditure in nearly 40 years” as part of the new UK industrial strategy.

This has coincided with the creation of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a new funding body – to be led by Sir John Kingman and Sir Mark Walport – which brings the seven existing research councils under a single umbrella.

Pennington is sceptical the new arrangements will make up for the potential loss of European funding.

“In practice, it would be quite difficult and large sums of money,” he says. “The Treasury would say piss off, basically.” 

“They will say we’re already spending vast sums of money on the Medical Research Council and you can apply to the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research, and all that kind of stuff.”

The Royal Society of Edinburgh, along with the British Academy and the Learned Society of Wales, has suggested government sets a target of three per cent of GDP for combined public and private R&D spending and takes steps to deliver this by at least matching public investment to the OECD average of 0.67 per cent of GDP invested into R&D.

But post-Brexit, the role of the science minister will take more importance, suggests Pennington, amid a growing clamour from ministers for funds to replace those lost from Europe. “They’ll be one of many voices shouting.” 

And even if the issue of funding is resolved, what impact will Brexit have on international relationships in research? Three of the UK’s top five research collaborators are EU member states. 

Pennington is more optimistic about collaboration, highlighting the fact that some of the big European collaborations predate the EU. Adding layers of bureaucracy will not help, he says, but researchers have always tended to find a way to work with the people they want to work with. “I had people in my lab from Iran and China and all over the place, and they were good to have in the lab as well,” he says.

Some of Scotland’s universities have well-established international status with a number of overseas campuses and offices, and are ranked highly in international league tables. This is particularly true of the ancient universities, which had international reputations long before the inception of the European Union.

The University of Edinburgh, for example, which enjoys £254m in research income, has offices in Beijing, Mumbai, Santiago, New York City and Singapore, with partnerships and research collaborations across the world. Senior vice-principal Professor Charlie Jeffery tells Holyrood 13 per cent of the student intake is from the EU and 30 per cent from outside Europe. 

Perhaps such institutions might feel more relaxed about the impact of Brexit.

“Brexit of course poses a big challenge for universities and we have met this head-on,” says Jeffery.

“We have worked very hard to show our commitment to our EU staff – a full quarter of our academic workforce – to give every assurance and welcome to EU students applying to join us, to underline our commitment to work with partner universities in the EU in Erasmus exchanges and research collaborations, and to keep on applying for EU research funding. 

“Our message has been that while the UK has changed with the Brexit vote, we have not. The University of Edinburgh remains as committed as ever to European collaboration.”
Jeffery says the university has not felt the impact on its ability to attract talent.

“We have the second largest number of European students of any UK university and the largest number in Scotland,” he says.

“We receive more EU undergraduate applications than any other university in the UK and interest in studying at the University of Edinburgh remains very strong this year, particularly among postgraduate applicants.”

Staff numbers coming to Edinburgh also “remain buoyant” in the wake of last year’s referendum vote, he adds.

“The number of EU staff moving on is far outweighed by the net increase of new colleagues we have welcomed from EU nations in recent months.”

But what about the uncertainty over future participation in Erasmus and Horizon 2020? Edinburgh accounts for 30 per cent of Scotland’s 480 Horizon 2020 grants and has received the seventh largest share of Horizon 2020 funds among all participating higher education institutions worldwide.

Jeffery says applications to Horizon 2020 from the university are up by about 22 per cent, with “an unprecedented number” of European Research Council starting grant applications through to the second round.

“The UK’s status as a full participating member of the Horizon 2020 programme has not changed as a result of the referendum and existing projects and grants will be honoured unless or until advised otherwise,” he says.

Edinburgh also continues to enjoy its status as “the UK’s largest beneficiary and top institution for Erasmus+ mobility,” according to Jeffery.

“So all in all, we have been able to meet that Brexit challenge so far – but we have to keep a clear focus,” he says. 

“Our priority over the next months will be to work with partner universities in the UK and elsewhere to influence governments and ensure the terms of Brexit support us in continuing to recruit brilliant staff and students and to participate in EU programmes, both of which will deliver benefits for Scotland’s economic, intellectual, cultural and social wellbeing.”

But while the ancient universities may have every right to remain bullish, other institutions have seen the EU play an important role in their history.

The University of the Highlands and Islands, for example, has the EU to thank for its existence, with well over £80m from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and European Social Fund (ESF) programmes having enabled the establishment of an institution unique in the UK because it delivers tertiary education across both further and higher education.

Linda Stewart, the UHI’s director of European and international development, tells Holyrood the UHI “shares the same concerns about the impact of Brexit as the rest of the sector” including barriers to the recruitment of students and staff, loss of funding for research and innovation and, “primarily”, the damage to international research and teaching collaboration.

“However, we are also very worried about changes in regional policy,” she adds. 

“The University of the Highlands and Islands has benefited enormously from EU economic development investment in our teaching and research infrastructure, but there is still work to be done to extend access to higher education and innovation support across the Highlands and islands, including our peripheral, island and fragile communities. 

“Whatever model of regional policy is introduced post-Brexit, we must ensure that it takes account of the specific challenges facing the Highlands and islands – geography, sparsity of population – as well as the contribution the region has to make towards Scotland’s economic growth.”

Whether through the loss of international partners, of influence or of the benefits of cutting-edge research, the words ‘taking back control’ may prove to be bittersweet for higher education.  

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