EU leaders agreed to move to the next stage of the Brexit negotiations at a European Council meeting on 15 December. Anne Corbett and Claire Gordon assess what the breakthrough in the negotiations might mean for the future of higher education and research following Brexit. They note that the agreement has been welcomed by higher education leaders in the UK, but that representatives from universities are being afforded little say over the process, and it remains to be seen how closer integration among EU universities will affect those based in the UK.

Glasgow University, Credit: Phillip Capper (CC BY 2.0)

The immediate Brexit deadlock has been broken. What might this mean for UK higher education and research, which like the financial sector and much of British business from cars to pharmaceuticals, has come to see itself embedded in Europe? At the very least, it heralds a major shakeup of the cards.

When the European Commission said that negotiations had advanced sufficiently for it to recommend moving on to stage two, UK Higher Education leaders were quick to applaud the breakthrough. The agreement in principle that the UK will meet its financial obligations ensures that UK institutions can continue to participate in existing programmes including Erasmus+, Horizon 2020 and Marie Sklodowska Curie Actions to the end of their current life in 2020. However, to maintain their research standing, universities need to be planning projects with longer lead-in times.

The stage one agreement on the right of EU27 citizens to stay, and of UK citizens to continue working or living in EU countries, is a victory for EU rights. But it is a victory that has come very late in the day. The past 18 months of political uncertainty have seen key staff leave the UK disaffected by the shift in values which the referendum appeared to reflect. However, for those universities where EU academics represent 25 or 30 per cent of the staff, the agreement is some solace. The presence of these EU citizens has been integral to the quality of their research and teaching.

In addition, there is both UK and EU political backing for continued links in higher education and research. Theresa May has been consistent about the need for continued science and research collaboration with the EU, and for the ‘best and brightest’ continuing to come to the UK. The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said back in May ‘I know how important EU policy is for creating networks and exchanges between universities in all 28 countries’.

UK higher education as a bystander

Stage 2 does however open with at least two clouds on the horizon. One problem is that higher education is a bystander in the drama which is being fought out in the Cabinet room of Number 10 as to what the end game will be – that is to say, its future may well be largely shaped by the outcome of the battle between just 23 people, many of them hostile or unconcerned about universities.

The prime minister committed to a ‘Hard Brexit’ outside the Single Market because of the referendum result. At the same time, the fudge over another stage one negotiation issue, the border between the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland as an integral part of the UK, suggests a continued alignment with the EU’s regulatory framework. That is anathema to the hardliners who fought to leave the EU ‘to take back control’, offers a small hope for remainers, and heralds further uncertainty for higher education in the months ahead.

As Barnier pointed out back in May, there is an option for the UK government to retain close links with the EU on higher education and research. It could ‘continue to support university networking and joint projects as a third country after Brexit [with] a different legal and financial framework’. That would take the UK into the territory of a free trade agreement, which is what leading Brexiters want. Simon Marginson of University College London, a leading authority on international higher education, has written that the mere fact of having a free trade agreement is not sufficient. ‘Reaping the rewards of free trade agreements is less a matter of inserting broad and liberal provisions on research and education than of working out detailed country specific objectives and then engaging in detailed negotiations to make them achievable within an FTA or another agreement’. So, if that is the way things pan out, there is some heavy lifting and a weary road ahead for the sector itself in preparing the government to act on its behalf.

It’s almost forget Brexit, think Europe

The second cloud on the horizon is that the EU has not been standing still. As one commentator on a pro-Remain blog put it: ‘Europe yawns at UK playpen politics’. As the months have passed, stakeholders in Europe have moved beyond their initial positions, of ideological commitment for keeping the UK part of the family, to a realist preference for treating Brexit as more of a technical issue which can be solved outside the top level political arena. The European project will move forward with or without the UK.

The weakening of UK influence has opened up space for other interests. Ambitious visions for the future directions of research, innovation, education and culture are in development: with the publication of the report of the independent High-Level Group on Maximising the impact of EU Research & Innovation Programmes in July 2017 and the Commission Communication on Education and Culture issued at the Gothenburg Council meeting in November 2017. In the area of research, a doubling of research funds and the better integration of research funding and Structural Funds, among other things, are on the cards. In education, an ambitious agenda for the mutual recognition of high school diplomas, the expansion of Erasmus+ and the development of a network of truly European universities has been set out.

This might seem irrelevant were it not for the presence of other powerful positive voices. President Macron has already stepped in with his vision for a European Universities network (rivals perhaps to Oxford and Cambridge). The upcoming Bologna ministerial conference in May 2018 is programmed to bring new momentum to the Bologna Process and a new era of increased cooperation in education.

As for the European University Association (EUA), with its post referendum commitment to keeping UK universities ‘in the family’ there are signs of a shift here too. The EUA leadership has welcomed the apparent renewed EU engagement of the French and of the Commission, and in particular the privileging of education as having a critical role to play in the promotion of a knowledge-based economy as well as being an integral part of the solution to the challenges of equality and inclusivity. The EUA strikes a note of caution about the risks of ‘policy fragmentation and the creation of parallel processes’ in European policy development in higher education and research. Even so, the case looks promising for an EU alignment with existing initiatives in the European Education and Research area and hence a strengthened European higher education and research commitment. This would provide a bulwark against the eventuality of the UK’s more marginalised position and a springboard for new opportunities.

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Note: This article is reproduced with permission from University World News. It gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the authors

Anne Corbett – LSE
Anne Corbett is a Senior Associate in LSE Enterprise and author of Universities and the Europe of Knowledge: Ideas, Institutions and Policy Entrepreneurship in European Union Higher Education Policy, 1955–2005 (Palgrave, 2005).

Claire Gordon – LSE
Claire Gordon is Head of LSE’s Teaching and Learning Centre. Both authors have submitted written evidence to the Education Select Committee and oral evidence taken at Oxford University.

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