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Analysis

Brexit will rewrite UK universities’ success story

by Libby Cherry | 15.08.2018

UK universities have potentially lost £121 million in EU research funding since last February. That’s a big knock to one of our most prestigious sectors. Last week, the government agreed to underwrite all funding due from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, even in the event of a no-deal Brexit, up to the end of the programme in 2020. However, this hurried promise does little to tackle the longer-term damage Brexit will do to UK research.

Leavers champion the UK’s evident success in innovation, citing the disproportionate amount of funding and prizes granted to the UK. This is presented as a form of British exceptionalism that will somehow allow us to weather our deliberate self-isolation.

UK universities are indeed a success worth celebrating. They are world-renowned and a serious economic asset. They generate £95 billion for the UK economy,  support more than 940,000 jobs and generate £13.1 billion of export receipts.

However, Brexiters’ concept of “British” research is misleading. In 1981, over 90% of the UK’s research was domestic – but this is no longer the case. In 2016 over 30% of all research papers were created in collaboration with the EU, according to Universities UK. That rises to 35.3% in the context of Cambridge, Oxford, UCL, and Imperial, who publish about one quarter of the UK’s research output.

Furthermore, no matter how much Brexiters champion sovereignty, after Brexit the UK will likely lose control over its research arrangements. The UK would only be allowed to join Horizon Europe, the agreement to succeed Horizon 2020, as a third country associate. As a result, we would not only have no say in the programme’s overall direction or strategy, but would also be excluded from those projects only open to full EU members.

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The UK can also say goodbye to its current financial benefits. At the moment, the UK receives far more in funding than it puts in. As an associate country, the EU has made clear that the UK would only be able to withdraw as much from the fund as it initially invests. That means UK researchers will be bridled by the amount of funding that the government is willing to shell out. A role in the main scientific programme will cost about €10bn across the seven-year period, the FT estimates.

We are already seeing universities making their own collaborations in the face of the national uncertainty. Oxford University made a comprehensive partnership with four Berlin universities last December, which covered sectors including the humanities and social sciences. However, whilst such bespoke collaborations may be achievable for some, many UK institutions lack the funds and international prestige to broker such agreements.

Nor are these institution-to-institution collaborations adequate substitutes for wider frameworks involving multiple universities. They necessarily loosen ties with other institutions, limiting the scope for research. We need close links between all institutions, allowing for researchers to be mobile, choosing research facilities most suited to their specific projects, rather than being limited to set affiliations.

Once the fall in the UK’s funding begins to have consequences, its decreasing attractiveness to international partners will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even individual collaborations between universities could become rarer as isolated UK institutions have less and less to offer. This is the toll Brexit is set to take on a great British success story.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

4 Responses to “Brexit will rewrite UK universities’ success story”

  • One more example of information which should be and must be brought to the attention of the country at large. Of course, one will be accused of ” project fear ” again but surely all the above can be confirmed by the Universities themselves. And if those who know best cannot be believed……… ? Truth itself is under attack.

    Once again, the basic problem of Brexit is that the world has moved on from that model of the world so dear to the Brexiters where ” the sun never set on the Empire ” ; today, success in every field demands a cooperative approach with other nations where national frontiers no longer impede the cross fertilisation of knowledge which international cooperation brings with it.

  • The advantage of multiannual funding for R&D promoted by the EU merits highlighting. Multiannual R&D funding gives researchers the confidence to plan their programmes over an extended period rather than run the anxiety of annualized funding. If BREXIT happens, British R&D funding will waver with political uncertainty around UK public spending.

  • I don’t think the Tories, with their corner-shop mentality inherited from Thatcher’s nightmare reign, have the slighest interest in maintaining British excellence in universities or research. Experts are not appreciated, in the same way they are under Trump in the States.

  • Practically all university theses and research papers are either written in English, or translated into the English language. British researchers are blessed with the opportunity of being able to read, and hopefully understand and interpret, all the research going on in Europe’s universities. Why cut ourselves off from the EU funding we need to continue being at the forefront of the World’s research efforts?