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University research funding and student mobility post-Brexit

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Please note this blog has been updated to include reference to the Scottish and Welsh Governments’ joint statement published on 26 January 2021

In the years leading up to the UK’s exit from the EU, retaining access to EU programmes including the Horizon Europe research funding scheme and the Erasmus+ education and training scheme was a top priority for the higher education sector.

While the final EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement paves the way for continued participation in Horizon Europe, an agreement on Erasmus+ was not reached and the UK will no longer participate.

Horizon Europe

The Horizon 2020 programme has been worth around €711m to Scottish organisations since 2014, and a report from the House of Lords European Union Committee in 2019 found the UK was the “second largest recipient” of funding. Ejection from successor scheme Horizon Europe had the potential to be extremely damaging for the sector; Switzerland’s experience of temporary exclusion between 2014 and 2017 saw the number of research projects its scientists participated in drop from 4,300 to 300.

Universities will therefore be relieved that access to this important scheme is set to continue, albeit with the UK as an associate member with no role in shaping the programme. With institutions facing considerable financial uncertainty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a no-deal Brexit could have cut the UK off from a programme that not only provides funding but also promotes partnerships between researchers and institutions all over Europe.

Instead, the EU-UK deal paves the way for continued access, subject to agreement of the relevant legal texts by the European Parliament and then by the Council of Ministers. UK participants will still be able to lead projects and UK Research and Innovation states continued association to Horizon Europe will give UK scientists, researchers and businesses:

“…access to funding under the programme on equivalent terms as organisations in EU countries.”

The Joint Declaration on Participation in Union Programmes and Access to Programme Services sets out the UK’s future participation in Horizon Europe and other EU programmes listed in Protocol I of the same declaration. It states:

“It is the Parties’ firm intention that the Specialised Committee on Participation in Union Programmes will adopt the Protocols at the earliest opportunity to allow their implementation as soon as possible, in particular with the ambition that United Kingdom entities would be able to participate from the beginning of the programmes and activities identified, ensuring relevant arrangements and agreements are in place, insofar as possible and in accordance with Union legislation.”

In relation to Horizon Europe, the declaration text means the ambition of both the EU and UK is for the UK to participate from the beginning of the 2021-2027 programme scheduled to begin in April this year. The newly established EU-UK Specialised Committee on Participation in Union Programmes will take the necessary steps to enable this.

While Horizon Europe access is set to continue for universities, Article 6 of Protocol I states that the UK will not participate in the European Innovation Council’s accelerator fund, established under Horizon Europe. This will impact UK-based companies seeking funding for new technology projects, meaning they will no longer be eligible to bid for grant funding of between €0.5 and €2.5m

Erasmus+ and the Turing Scheme

A deal was not reached on the Erasmus+ education, training, and student exchange scheme and the UK will no longer participate. Following its exclusion from the EU-UK Agreement, the Scottish and Welsh Governments have announced they will now explore whether Scotland and Wales can continue to take part without the rest of the UK. Separately, the Government of Ireland has stated it will fund continued access to the scheme for students in Northern Ireland.

Erasmus+ has been running for 33 years and continues to grow. Its proposed budget for 2021-27 is around €26bn – a significant increase on the €14.7bn budget of the past seven years. The House of Lords European Union Committee found that over half of all UK students studying abroad were enrolled in the scheme.

At Scotland level, data from Erasmus+ UK finds that between 2014 and 2018 funding of €90.7m benefited 844 projects and 13,957 participants across higher, further and vocational education.  

In the run up to Brexit, the Scottish and Welsh Governments called for the UK to remain a member of the programme. The Scottish Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee also recommended continuation of membership. The UK Government’s February 2020 Future Relationship document stated that participation would be considered “provided the terms are in the UK’s interests.”

However, when the EU-UK Brexit deal was agreed, membership of Erasmus+ was not included. The Prime Minister described leaving Erasmus+ as a “tough decision” citing the cost of the programme – estimated by the UK Government to be around £2bn over six years – as a factor. This was in contrast to a previous statement made on 15 January 2020 where the Prime Minister said:

“There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme, and we will continue to participate in it. UK students will continue to be able to enjoy the benefits of exchanges with our European friends and partners, just as they will be able to continue to come to this country.”

The UK Government has announced that a new scheme, the Turing Scheme, will open to UK students from September 2021. Initial funding of £100m will be provided for the first year of the scheme and the UK Government’s press release suggests that will allow around 35,000 students to go on overseas placements and exchanges. Further details are not available and it is not yet clear whether the new scheme will have the same impact as Erasmus+, which between 2014 and 2018 awarded €679.7m to the UK and had 167,000 UK participants – an average of around 41,000 per year.  

The Scottish and Welsh Governments’ joint statement, agreed by Further and Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead and Welsh Minister for Education Kirsty Williams, describes the Turing Scheme as “a lesser imitation of the real thing”, with no support for adult education or youth work and reduced support for colleges, schools and vocational education.

While the UK university sector has broadly welcomed the announcement of the Turing Scheme, there are concerns about its failure to cover funding for inbound exchange students as reciprocity is an important element of negotiating exchange agreements. There has also been concerns within the sector about the timescales involved; negotiating new agreements between institutions can take many months.

In addition, EU citizens arriving in the UK and UK citizens arriving in EU member states after 31 December 2020 no longer have a right to free movement, meaning students will be subject to the immigration rules of their country of study. This is likely to add another layer of complexity to the successor scheme. 

The Scottish Government said that earlier this month Richard Lochhead had a virtual meeting with the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel, during which:

“We agreed that withdrawing from Erasmus is highly regrettable and we will continue to explore with the EU how to maximise Scotland’s continued engagement with the programme.”  

Whether Scotland will continue to be involved in Erasmus+, how that might look and how it might interact with involvement in the Turing Scheme remains to be seen. Just a few weeks after the signing of the EU-UK deal, this is one issue where the devolved administrations find themselves in uncharted territory with both the EU and the UK Government. The nature of the discussions and any resulting decisions will likely give a fascinating insight into how these interinstitutional relationships might develop and whether there is scope for other differential arrangements with the EU across the four UK nations.

Lynne Currie, Senior Researcher (Education), SPICe