The Economist is running a series of articles on the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit on everything from trade to the island of Ireland, the economy to immigration, cars and retailing to aviation. This piece looks at universities and research.
OVERSEAS STUDENTS from EU countries make up around 5% of those in England and are treated the same way as local ones. They pay at most £9,250 ($12,230) a year for tuition and have access to generous state-provided loans to meet the cost. The government has promised to extend this support to EU students starting courses in 2019, but hasn’t said what will happen after then. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, it would have little incentive to extend financial support to EU students.
Some in the sector argue that universities might benefit from the shock. Since EU students would no longer be able to claim government support, universities would be free to charge them more than £9,250 a year, as they do international students from elsewhere (fees can be hefty: a fine art degree from University College London costs £26,430 a year, for instance). In this situation it is likely that the more illustrious universities would poach students from their less well-known rivals. “If you’re going to pay international rates, you’re going to want a more prestigious university,” frets an official at a mid-ranking institution.
Concerns about the flow of students are mirrored by concerns about the flow of research. Any perceived threat to the free movement of scientific ideas across national borders tends to irk academics. Before the Brexit referendum, straw polls of researchers in British universities suggested they tilted strongly in favour of remaining in the EU. There is little sign that sentiment has shifted since the vote.
Worries over Brexit’s impact on science are centred on Britain’s participation in the EU’s seven-year-long research programmes. Horizon 2020, the current one, will dole out about €77bn ($88bn) between 2014 and 2020. Its successor, Horizon Europe, will have a budget of €100bn if the European Commission gets its way, though the figure that will eventually be agreed on by the EU is likely to be lower.
On average, Britain’s universities have got about €700m from that pot each year. This corresponds to around 8% of the sum they spend on research. More importantly, it allows researchers in different countries working on the same project to apply for EU cash together, rather than turning to their own nation’s funding agencies. If successful, they can begin work simultaneously. This strengthens scientific collaboration and is not easily replaced by increases to national science budgets.
In the event of a no-deal Brexit, Britain would no longer be eligible for EU funding. However, the British government has agreed to underwrite for British researchers any successful application for Horizon 2020 grants made before the Brexit date. But British institutions charged with co-ordinating grants for partners in other EU countries face uncertainty. Neither the British government nor the EU has agreed to transfer funds to British universities that will ultimately be used for research outside Britain.
After a no-deal Brexit, British institutions could still apply for Horizon 2020 programmes open to “third countries” (those not in the EU), with the British government guaranteeing funding. But this excludes three funding streams. One of these is the SME instrument, through which small businesses in Britain have won about €20-40m for research each year. The other two—European Research Council (ERC) grants and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (the EU’s research-fellowship programme)—are competitive, prestigious and together net British higher education more than €500m per year. Britain’s universities, ranked highly in international league tables for research, are a popular destination for grant winners. Members of the Russell Group of 24 leading British universities have, for example, secured 17% of all ERC grants between 2007 and 2017—more than the total won by all German universities. If there is no withdrawal agreement, British universities would no longer be able to host grantees.
On top of Horizon 2020 cash, British universities also receive research funding from EU-based charities and the private sector to the tune of around €100m. The future of such revenue streams will be more uncertain post-Brexit.
In the longer term, the impact of a no-deal Brexit on science will depend in large part on the degree to which researchers can continue to access EU research programmes. The least disruptive solution would be for Britain to seek “associated country” status, the closest possible relationship for nations outside the EU. Essentially, that would mean Britain contributes cash to the programme in exchange for participation, as do Israel and Switzerland, for example. Associated countries, however, have little influence on research priorities and Britain would be by far the biggest country to participate in this way. Between 2007 and 2013 Britain took over 18% (€8.8bn out of €47.5bn) of EU research cash while contributing about 11% (€5.4bn). Associated countries together won only 7%.
Moreover, this option would almost certainly require a deal on immigration to allow academics and technicians from the EU to work freely in Britain. Many scientists on relatively low salaries would fall foul of Britain’s visa rules. The visa question is an acute one for British universities. About 16% of academic researchers in Britain are from EU countries. Like other EU nationals, they will be able to apply for settled status. Universities, however, fear that unless visa rules are changed they will have difficulty recruiting staff in future.
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What would a no-deal Brexit mean for the island of Ireland?
What would a no-deal Brexit mean for immigration?
What would a no-deal Brexit mean for the economy?
What would a no-deal Brexit mean for the automotive industry?
What would a no-deal Brexit mean for retailing?
What would a no-deal Brexit mean for aviation?