Brexit: Dark clouds gathering over UK education and research

Brexit could spell disastrous consequences not just for the UK's research and education sectors, but for the EU's as well, warns Neena Gill.

Neena Gill | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Neena Gill

03 Oct 2016

The outcome of the UK referendum has been a major cause of concern for British universities and research institutions. 

Not surprisingly, much of that has revolved around the consequences of a loss of access to Horizon2020, which has been a significant element in supporting UK research at a time when government funding has, at best, stagnated.

It's unlikely, however, that dark clouds gathering over this sector will remain confined to the UK; they risk spelling a gloomy forecast for the EU as well. 


Consider for example the importance of UK participation to the attainment of EU research objectives, which is illustrated by the fact that it is only surpassed by Germany in terms of successful applications for Horizon 2020 funding. 

And while some believe a UK exit from Horizon 2020 will help them to a bigger piece of the cake, the implication of losing a key contributor is that there simply will be less cake to begin with.

The value of this relationship goes deeper than numbers. The UK's engagement with Horizon 2020 sees research institutions, small and large businesses, third sector organisations and public bodies participating across the spectrum of the EU's priority areas. 

In the West Midlands, consortia of universities, industry, local government, and service providers such as the NHS play leading roles in EU flagship programmes which aim to make step changes in climate change mitigation and adaptation and healthcare.

One of the EU's research and innovation powerhouses, the UK also contributes significantly to the career development of researchers from other member states. Let me give an example of one of the leading universities in my region. 

The University of Warwick employs nearly 500 non-UK EU nationals, the vast majority of whom are researchers. In the recent research excellence framework, 87 per cent of Warwick's research was rated as either 'world-leading' or 'internationally-excellent'. 

Clearly, the loss of the UK as a base for their development would be a significant loss to the EU's capacity to carry out world class research.

Considering all of the above, it is clear that the UK referendum outcome could have toxic consequences for the higher education and research sector in Britain, as well as the EU at large, with academic research quality, innovation capacity, jobs and growth and student mobility among the areas that stand to take a big hit.

While I welcome UK Chancellor Philip Hammond's commitments to ensure that Horizon 2020 funding will be picked up by the British government, it therefore must be made clear to him that issues which go beyond funding merit equal attention.

As a matter of priority, the European Parliament and the higher education and research sector should explore the future role of the UK in Horizon 2020's successor, framework nine, and ensure freedom of movement for talent to provide certainty to students from both the UK and other EU countries who wish to study on the other side of the channel.

A key priority is to ensure that the "all or nothing" scenarios dominating the debate about the UK's future relations with the EU are not allowed to weaken the mutually beneficial relationship that exists in research and education. 

It falls upon MEPs not just from the UK, but from all member states, to stand up for this vital partnership and help the EU higher education and research sector steer clear of the stormy weather ahead.


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