Brexit: research and education must be solved now

Written by Paul Boyle & Rolf Tarrach on 3 May 2018 in Opinion Plus
Opinion Plus

Research and education should be among the easier elements of the Brexit negotiations, argue Paul Boyle and Rolf Tarrach

Photo credit: Press Association


Countries from outside the EU can participate in EU programmes and both sides have been positive about preserving ties since the beginning, as the EU and the UK benefit immensely from cooperation.

Even so, it is important that the preparations for such collaboration begin immediately.

European leaders have agreed to extend the UK’s de facto EU membership, including participation in EU higher education and research programmes, until the end of 2020.


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However, it is a very short transition period during which a complex range of issues will need to be negotiated, and the approach that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” puts science and innovation in both the EU and UK at unnecessary risk.  

There are four reasons why prioritising preparatory discussions on research and education within the negotiations on the future EU-UK relationship would be a wise decision for both the EU and UK.

The ultimate aim should be to secure full UK participation in the Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ successor programmes as an associate country.

First, there is the serious issue of timing. The conclusion of Horizon 2020 coincides with the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020, with the new programme starting on 1 January 2021.

"The approach that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” puts science and innovation in both the EU and UK at unnecessary risk"

There is a real risk that all the complex EU-UK trade and other negotiations will not be complete by that date.

Both the EU and UK would suffer simply because of this unfortunate timing: the UK would be excluded from initial waves of research and education partnerships, and the EU would suffer from programmes that are much smaller without the UK’s financial and scientific contribution.

Second, both sides want cooperation. The UK’s participation in the EU framework programmes has been an overwhelming success: 17 per cent of academics in the UK are from other EU countries; 30 per cent of UK academic papers include EU contributors; and six of the UK’s top ten countries for research collaboration are in Europe.

Hence, both Michel Barnier and Theresa May have spoken positively about the benefits of collaboration in research and education.

"Early alignment would provide reassurance that a deep and constructive relationship between the EU and UK is feasible"

Third, unlike some sectors of the EU economy, mechanisms allowing for the participation of non-EU countries already exist for research and education.

For example, Israel, Norway, Switzerland and many others already participate in Horizon 2020 as associate partners, providing useful precedents to build upon.

Fourth, early alignment would provide reassurance that a deep and constructive relationship between the EU and UK is feasible.

While it would not be possible to sign an association agreement until the next set of EU programmes have been finalised in 2019 or 2020, there is no reason why negotiations for an overarching EU-UK agreement, which could lay the foundations for a future deal on association, could not start today.  

Negotiators should, therefore, start preparatory discussions as soon as possible and include a comprehensive chapter on academic cooperation in the agreement for the future relationship, which is due to be agreed by October 2018.

This would be a win-win for all Europeans.

About the author

Paul Boyle is President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester and Vice President of the European University Association

Rolf Tarrach is the President of the European University Association

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