With the legal formalities for Britain’s exit from the EU now complete, the university world of the UK and the EU is looking to Phase 2. After three and a half years of regret and frustration, they have a plan in hand. However, this could well be derailed, since at the same time the Johnson Government will be negotiating the future trading relationship with the EU, where the outcome is unpredictable, write Anne Corbett and Claire Gordon (LSE).
For the rest of 2020, after which the transition phase ends by Boris Johnson’s choice, the hopes of the university world remain mixed with uncertainty. Will the negotiations on higher education and research be self-contained? Or will British universities end up as bargaining chips for the prime minister to achieve his bigger goals on trade?
UK universities’ wish list for the new relationship is that there will be full association with the new round of EU programmes starting in 2021. These are Erasmus+ for cooperation and mobility supporting the multiple ways to empower young people through education and training, youth and sport, and to strengthen European identity, and Horizon Europe which has a three-pronged strategy to support ‘excellent’ science and research, to incite work on global challenges and Europe’s industrial competitiveness, and to provide infrastructure to stimulate European innovation
Most European universities share the hopes of the UK sector. British institutions continue to be appreciated as research partners, career opportunities, training and development grounds for young researchers and as a student destination, although there was some falling off following the Referendum of both academics and research students. An official from DAAD, the German academic exchange service, told us that their advice, when German universities ask if they should still accept UK partners for the 2021-2027 programmes, has been ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ (though not all accept the advice). The European University Association, representing the leadership of more than 800 universities in 48 countries, is working on concrete ways of keeping British universities in the European ‘family’ stressing post-Brexit possibilities.
There is also hope that some way will be found for the UK to access the EU’s new European Universities Initiative the latest scheme to exploit the unity, diversity and potential of Europe’s university systems. It derives from an idea proposed by President Emmanuel Macron and taken up by the European Commission, benefitting from the 20-year experience of the Bologna Process to build a European Higher Education Area, and of the well-established university leagues like LERU.
The pilot stage of this European initiative brings together 114 universities, drawn from 24 countries and organised in 17 consortia, each of which has specific characteristics. It is an impressive roll call of distinguished cultural and scientific institutions from across the Continent, and a glimpse of how varied are the missions around which universities can coalesce. There is a civic university alliance, an alliance for smart urban coastal sustainability, another for the sea, several technological partnerships, others for global health and the one with which LSE is associated, CIVICA, for the social sciences. The aim is easy mobility and exchange, and the development of elements of common curriculum. Some are already planning joint masters and joint doctorates.
The European Commission itself has always been onside for continued UK participation in EU programmes. It takes a stand not as a political player but as guardian of the Treaty and EU rules. Legally, non-member states can apply for associated status which is less good than membership but enables their participation in certain EU programmes. As the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, stated back in 2017, association is the logical solution for the UK in this domain. The Commission already has drafts for different scenarios to discuss, once negotiations start.
We know that the negotiations will be in two parts as described in the Political Declaration last November. The first step will be to agree on the generic principles for programme associations. Then will come negotiations on each programme. It is expected that there will be more details from the Commission within days of January 31, in a briefing document on managing the negotiations.
Clearly, detailed programme negotiation is somewhere down the line, maybe as late as the autumn, because the EU Council and the European Parliament have not yet agreed the EU Budget for 2021-2027. Insiders report that that might still be in time for UK participation in Horizon Europe, citing the way in which Israel was able to participate in an earlier programme before all the legal formalities had been completed. But, as Mariya Gabriel, the new Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Education has warned, the UK would be well advised to avoid cherry-picking.
The bottom line is that both sides of the Channel can see a way forward in which universities are still linked to EU programmes. As the EUA puts it in its latest briefing, the road to association agreements is complex and time is short – ‘but the direction is right’.
The bigger and as yet unanswered question is how the prime minister is going to play the next stage. Johnson’s concern for Erasmus has only just begun to feature in his public pronouncements. The programme has few supporters in the Treasury. But the public outcry following the Liberal Democrat failure to get Government to commit to seeking full association for the programme into the Withdrawal Agreement Bill has forced a governmental riposte. The Department for Education now says that there is ‘no threat to Erasmus’.
In contrast with his position on educational cooperation, Johnson has never hidden his ambition for an ambitious science policy which would make the UK a ‘global science hub’. He has promised a doubling of the research budget within five years. But his avowed concern to keep the UK in the Horizon programme brings his Faustian dilemma to the fore, unless research and education are sealed off from the trade negotiations. He will have to square his determination to have a strongly competitive relationship with the EU based on divergence from Union norms and standards. The EU is determined to retain a level playing field. His meeting with the new Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen in early January made clear the differences between the two sides, raising the stakes that Johnson will not reach a trade deal with the EU by December 2020.
Johnson has also talked of a British Galileo satellite project if the UK ceases to be part of the European effort. He would create a new funding agency for ’high risk, high reward research’ possibly a sort of low-budget DARPA the American defence funding agency, a proposition favoured by his special adviser, Dominic Cummings. It is a brave claim given the sophisticated EU research infrastructure which supports the 100bn euro Horizon programme.
But none of this can be done without significant short-term costs to the research sector, as prominent researchers such as Sir Paul Nurse and Sir Martin Rees have repeatedly emphasised since the Referendum. The Wellcome evidence to the review on ‘no deal’ contingency planning on research and innovation said it loud and clear: ‘there are no quick and cheap ways to create an alternative with the same level of cost-efficiency, ambition and prestige.’
At this stage 2020 is shaping up to be a test case of how far a single sector can go in pursuing a relationship and a future, also sought by its European peers, without being subject to the vagaries of politics at the highest governmental levels.
This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.