In an open letter signed by more than 100 heads of UK universities almost a year ago, the British academic community expressed that Brexit would be a disaster for UK science and universities. The EU has brought invaluable networks for research and collaboration to the UK, and above all, it has fostered a shared democratic culture of openness and tolerance. May’s strong and stable downfall in the 8 June general election, however, signals that such links may not face drastic change after all, as anxieties over a hard and disruptive Brexit appear widespread. With her ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ now in tatters, a softer landing seems possible, yet hard legal, political and commercial realities remain. What is at stake for teachers, students, researchers, scientists, small businesses and innovators if the UK crashes out of the EU?
A consensual but hard Brexit threatens to cut off the flow of people from Europe into the UK education and research system. Non-UK nationals at 438,000 currently form 20% of UK university students, 127,000 of whom come from the EU (5.5% of the total). About 30% of academic staff are non-UK nationals, 33,700 of whom come from the EU (17% of the total). Harmonising fees for EU and non-EU students has been predicted to reduce the number of enrolments by more than 31,000. A recent survey by YouGov reveals that 76% of EU academics are now more likely to consider leaving the UK and 29% of all survey respondents know other academics that have done so. Universities have already reported difficulties in recruiting EU students and staff; Cambridge for instance noted a 14% drop in EU applicants for undergraduate courses.
Not only does this bear a loss for multicultural collaboration and a downgrading of the UK’s international reputation, but there are also financial repercussions. It is estimated that the loss of prospective EU students choosing to study in the UK could cost the economy over £690 million per year. Brexiteers’ claim that a harmonisation of fees between EU and non-EU students will increase tuition income depends on the elasticity of foreign students’ demand. Likewise talk of a depreciating sterling that would depreciate the real value of fees and thus increase enrolments is questionable, especially as it would require a significant depreciation. The crash out scenario is therefore likely to see a rejection of high calibre students and staff, as well as a loss of structural contribution to UK universities. The EU produces 14-19% of university income, which will somehow have to be replaced.
As the Education Select Committee has stressed, replicating the infrastructure, funding and cooperative networks provided by EU membership is impossible in the short term. Erasmus+, for instance, is one of the few EU success stories everyone can agree on. With 33 full members, 160 partner countries, and a scheme expanding to apprenticeships as well as training, Erasmus+ has served 9 million people over the past 30 years. As a pivotal member of the alliance, the UK’s leaving means that young people both at home and in other countries will miss out on opportunities to travel and broaden their horizons. In 2015 the UK was the third most popular destination for students. From 2014-2016 the country boasted 2,910 Erasmus+ projects and received 363 million euros from the EU in grants.
Students protest outside Parliament following the referendum results
Collaboration with European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives is also at risk, with programmes such as Horizon2020 (H2020) at the centre of stakeholder distress. According to the European University Association, the UK has the largest number of publications and participants in H2020 and manages 20% of the programme’s projects. As the second highest receiver of funding, the UK secures 15.4% of all funds, including 20.6% of all grant funding awarded by the European Research Council. 6,500 Brits had taken part by February this year, receiving 3.265,51 euros, alongside 1,255 SMEs, receiving 51,286 euros. Successful stories of collaboration span across issues such as health, technology, space and the environment. The mobility between countries that has benefitted UK research is also at risk, which some say will lead to a brain drain and fewer joint opportunities. On the other hand, some international research organisations, such as CERN, EMBL, the European Space Agency, the European Southern Observatory or the European Spallation Source (ESS) will hardly be affected.
In terms of funding, the Royal Society claims that the UK received 8.8 billion euros from the EU for research, development and innovation between 2007 and 2013 – having paid just 5.4 billion euros into EU coffers for such activities. UK organisations receive a meaningful contribution to the total national research effort at 1.1 billion euros a year on average. This amounts to over 10% of total government support to the sector, and around 5% of UK gross domestic expenditure on R&D. The UK is in fact one of the largest recipients of research funding in the EU. Providing the UK crashes out of the EU, small businesses benefitting from the EU Framework for research and innovation programme will be hit hard, whilst larger firms will lose out on support from H2020 for pre-competitive research.
The 8 June election results, an 8% swing from Conservatives to Labour in constituencies that voted to remain last year, suggests a lack of political support for May’s tough stance in the Brexit negotiations. Hope has thus been raised for a dramatic swerve to a softer approach, including in the research and innovation sector. Were there to be, heaven forbid, another general election, Labour may push for a way to remain in the single market, however, as things stand, the UK’s Brexit negotiators are likely to pursue a more consensual stance. If this scenario means staying in the single market with concessions for freer movement of people or a higher divorce bill, the advantages for EU driven collaborative industries could be long term.
Although people, programmes and funding in the research and innovation sector may seem on safer terrain than a few weeks ago, it is crucial that its representatives, such as universities and businesses, speak up and intervene in formulating the UK’s negotiating position. Organisations such as the Royal Society must not refrain from lobbying in the fear of undermining their credibility as independent advisers to the government. The results of the election have demonstrated that people can make a difference. Finding a strong common voice within the sector to push for action on its core concerns is imperative.
Scientist cartoon: http://www.instagram.com/japples_2212/?hl=en