Where has all the research (money) gone?

By Dr Christa Brunnschweiler

I’ve been following the discussion of the various costs (or benefits) for the UK of leaving the EU for a while now. I follow them as a not entirely disinterested outsider: I am not eligible to vote in the upcoming referendum on 23 June, but I am a citizen of another European country and can expect to be affected by the vote’s outcome.


Recently, the effect of Brexit on UK higher education has been receiving some attention. The other week, 200 Cambridge university academics expressed “grave concern” over the impact of Brexit on UK universities. Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ group that has been active on the “remain” side, has brought forward several arguments against leaving the EU. Among the main ones is that leaving the EU would weaken the quality and impact of UK research by decreasing access to some of the best minds, both as colleagues in UK universities and as (European) collaborators in research projects. It would affect the quality of teaching; eliminate a large source of funding for researchers, universities and local communities; and take away many opportunities for student exchanges.

Let’s look at some statistics. The Royal Society tells us that the UK has been one of the largest recipients of EU research funding in recent years. From 2007-2013, it received €8.8 billion out of a total of €107 billion EU expenditure on research, development and innovation. It also secured €6.9 billion out of a total €55.4 billion funds awarded on a competitive basis (under the so-called Framework Programme 7) in the same period. Universities UK points out that from 2012-2013, around 5.5% of students studying in the UK were from other EU countries (that’s about 125,000 students), generating £2.3 billion for the UK economy and more than 19,000 jobs in local communities. Over 200,000 British undergraduate students have gone on an Erasmus exchange within Europe (there are other exchange programmes for postgraduate students, adding even more to the number). Finally, in a recent blog article our vice-chancellor says that around 10% of UEA students and staff are from other EU countries, and that EU research money has made up 13% of UEA’s research income in each of the last two years.

These arguments look weighty indeed, but what exactly would happen to UK universities if the UK left the EU? Let me be upfront and admit that I don’t know the answer, mainly because the Brexit camp doesn’t appear to have a clear idea of what the exit strategy should be. However, because what would happen after Brexit matters very much also for UK universities, I’ll consider three possible options.

First, the UK could opt for a “soft exit” a’ la Norway and join the European Economic Area (EEA). EEA countries include all EU and three of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) countries, namely Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. EEA countries participate fully in the Single Market and share the “four freedoms”, i.e. the free movement of goods, capital, services and persons – plus so-called flanking policies, which include research and technological development, education, training and youth. Note that all EEA countries – even the non-EU ones – pay into the EU budget for these privileges; however, the non-EU countries don’t get much say about the content of the policies. I believe this is the least uncertain option: if the UK left the EU but joined EFTA and the EEA, probably not much would change for UK universities.

Second, there’s the “Swiss option”. I mentioned above that I’m a non-UK European citizen: let me specify here that I’m Swiss, so the name isn’t chosen entirely at random. This option entails staying out of the EEA, but accessing the Single Market by joining EFTA (I know, the acronyms are confusing). The Swiss option also leaves open the possibility of negotiating bilateral agreements in order to participate in other areas of EU policy, including research and education – with connected payment, of course, and without having any say whatsoever in the design of these policies.

This might appear to be the perfect cherry-picking solution for sovereignty lovers, but beware of the small print: bilateral agreements take a long time to be reached (it took several years to negotiate the first batch of agreements between Switzerland and the EU), and the outcome is highly uncertain and tied to a lot of strings, as well as unanimous ratification by all EU member states. To illustrate the potential problems of this option, let me give an example. In a referendum a couple of years ago, a narrow majority of Swiss citizens voted in favour of the “Mass immigration initiative”, which sought to regain a lot of control over EU immigration into Switzerland (Switzerland has agreed to “free movement of persons”). This has not only caused headaches for Swiss policymakers and diplomats in Brussels, but also led to the EU threat of cancelling all existing bilateral agreements and halting all ongoing talks on new agreements, because you can’t pick-and-choose which part(s) of the four essential EU freedoms you want to subscribe to.

Of particular relevance for the issue at hand was the threat of immediate suspension of all Swiss participation in EU research and education projects, to the great consternation of Swiss universities. The full suspension was postponed (Switzerland can still participate in most EU research projects), but it looms large over the Swiss academic sector in case the government cannot negotiate a compromise with the EU by February 2017. Incidentally, all (official) negotiations between the EU and Switzerland are currently put on hold until after the Brexit referendum. And what of the Swiss referendum of 2014? Recent polls suggest that a clear majority would now vote against it, as the consequences have become much clearer.

So what of the third option? This would entail staying out of the EEA and EFTA and seeking British fortunes elsewhere – call it the “go-it-alone option”. It is the most uncertain way out of the EU, and as far as British universities are concerned, it is likely to be the worst-case scenario. Unless some special access to EU research and education programmes could be negotiated in reasonable time, the UK higher education system as we know it would be fundamentally affected, at least in the short and medium term. UK universities would lose most of their students from other EU countries. True, any future EU students would no longer pay UK fees or get access to UK funding schemes: instead, they’d pay the higher fees of other international students, and perhaps there would be more free spaces for non-European international and even UK students. Of course, the latter would no longer be able to easily study in other European countries. And whether the UK government could make up for the lost EU research funds, or what other funding sources might be found, is anyone’s guess.

Option three would most directly affect people like myself: non-UK Europeans who have come to work or study at UK universities. Some polls suggest that UK universities would become less attractive to other Europeans in case of Brexit, both as places to study and to work. Getting into a UK university would likely become more difficult from a purely practical point of view, though Brexit supporters assure us that current EU workers could remain.

My main conclusion from the Brexit discussions is that it would be nice to know what exit strategy we’re looking at, for as I’ve described above, the various options would have widely differing impacts on UK universities – and all other sectors of the economy, as well.


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