UK Academia: another jewel in the crown at risk from Brexit

by David Hannay | 20.07.2016

When the Vice-Chancellors of Britain’s universities, together with a substantial proportion of the country’s top scientists, including Nobel laureates, warn that Brexit could seriously damage scientific research and our universities, it is surely time to sit up and pay attention.

The possible loss of EU funding for research and innovation is not only quantitatively serious, although it is certainly that – to give an idea of the scale, 20% of the European Research Council’s grants come to the UK, €6.7 billion have gone to fund UK-based research since 2013, with €520 million more to come by 2020.  

Since Britain is a net beneficiary from this sector of EU funding, replacing it from national resources will be no straightforward matter for a cash-strapped Treasury which has, in recent years, been cutting back on its own contribution to scientific research.

But the loss will be qualitative too.

Universities gain more from collaborative projects undertaken with partners from other EU countries than they do from purely national projects; and already there are signs of these flagging since the vote on 23 June.

Moreover, sixteen percent of our academics come from other EU countries and could be discouraged if controls are introduced on immigration. Eight percent of UK researchers work in other EU countries. And half of all PhD students in the UK come from overseas, many of them from EU countries.

And then there are the thousands of undergraduate exchanges under the Erasmus programme – which also no doubt do something to counter the decline in our modern language skills. The extent to which Britain’s universities contribute to our soft power is often overlooked, but it is nonetheless a reality.

Is it scaremongering to say that some or all of these benefits may be at risk in the Brexit negotiations? I do not think so. After all the Swiss lost their access to the EU’s  research programmes and to Erasmus scholarships when they voted in a referendum to impose controls on immigrants from EU countries. Nor could we hope to participate in any of these programmes if we repatriate all our contributions to the EU budget.

As the new government draws together all the threads of these complex issues in the weeks ahead, it really is important not to overlook the fundamental significance of research cooperation and the need to avoid damaging the higher education sector which is, after all, a major contributor to our invisible exports and is second worldwide only to the United States. It is fine to say that Brexit means Brexit; but Brexit without tears may a bit more difficult to deliver.

Edited by Geert Linnebank