Exiting the EU: challenges and opportunities for higher education Contents

2EU programmes

42.The Government has stated that it wants to seek to continue collaborating with European partners on research and innovation, and that “there may be European programmes in which we might want to participate” with an appropriate contribution being made.85 We heard throughout our inquiry about the importance of some EU programmes, including Horizon 2020, Erasmus+ and European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF), and in this Chapter we recommend what type of membership and participation would be appropriate for each.

EU research framework programmes

43.In total, 18.3% of the total funds the UK received from the EU between 2007 and 2013 were to support science, research and innovation, making it a significant element of the UK’s membership of the EU.86 From 2007 to 2013, the UK contributed €5.4 billion to the EU for research, development and innovation; over the same time, the UK received €8.8 billion.87 €6.9 billion of the €8.8 billion received was from Horizon 2020’s predecessor, the Framework 7 Programme. UK universities were the most successful recipients of Framework 7 with a 71% share.88 The future of UK’s involvement in Horizon 2020 and its successor, Framework 9, is unclear. The Department for Education said “it was too early to speculate on the UK’s future relationship with Horizon 2020 and successor programmes”.89 The Treasury has confirmed it will underwrite funding for all EU funding awards while the UK remains a member of the EU, including projects that continue beyond the UK’s departure.90

44.Universities repeatedly placed continued participation in Horizon 2020 and successor programmes as a priority for the sector. Imperial College London expressed concern about the loss of EU research funding, calling the impact of its potential loss on universities’ research productivity “substantial”, and that “a simple pound-for-pound replacement of lost income would still be a net loss for science and research” due to the decline in collaboration.91 Sheffield Hallam University called for the preservation of access to European research programmes due to their importance in funding research and driving international collaboration.92 Professor Michael Arthur commented:

If you look at who is receiving funding from Horizon 2020 and from the European Research Council, and if you look at the universities around Europe, five of the top seven are from the UK [ … ] This is a huge part of our activity and our economy [ … ] Altogether, when you look at the European Research Council and its funding into [University College London], something like 70%-odd of those awards are held by EU or other international researchers. If we do not have access to that, that is a huge dent in our ability to research effectively.93

45.We were repeatedly told that the EU gave significant opportunities to collaborate. Horizon 2020 funds the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MCSA), which provide mobility research grants to promote international collaborations. Between 2007 and 2014, 3,454 UK-based researchers received a total of over €1 billion of funding through the MSCA.94 Professor Latham said that the EU, in the way it works, allows people to come together and work in collaborations that would be much more difficult to do due to legislative and regulative constraints.95 Professor Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History at the University of Oxford, although calling research collaboration “an abstract thing”, did try and quantify it:

If you wanted to look at what the value to the UK of that was, 47% of that was collaborative programmes with typically six partners. If you multiply that and just say we got all of the intellectual property, we got all that research, and we did not just get the research that was done by the UK institutions, it is worth £29.5 billion, and then we have not paid for the training of those staff. We have not paid for the equipment that they have used. Then there is the added value of the research ecosystem that you talk about. If you wanted to try to put a value on it, it is many times what we receive in income.96

46.It is not simply the funds provided by EU, but also the networks and facilities made available to researchers. As the University of York pointed out, there will be a significant indirect effect from Brexit as it is unlikely UK scientists and researchers could have free access to European facilities that they are no longer paying for.97 Dr Anne Corbett said that the 40 years of work into the EU had resulted in networks and facilities that could not be easily replaced.98 Professor Stephanie Haywood, President of the Engineering Professors’ Council, told us at Oxford that:

You also have to look at the practicalities. It is much easier to collaborate with your immediate neighbours. Even from Hull, I can get on a train and I can be in Paris very quickly. There are a lot of infrastructure facilities: the European Synchrotron Facility, CERN, the laser facilities at Harwell, the whole range of joint infrastructure that has been built up over very many years [ … ] we get to use it through EU funding. One thing we really need to consider is we may be paying for some of these facilities as a nation but not through the EU, because they are not supported by the EU, but then have a restricted access to them because much of our access has been through projects funded by the EU. There are a lot of things like this that need consideration.99

47.There are 16 non-Member states who participate in Horizon 2020, including Norway, Switzerland, Israel and Turkey. These vary from countries within the single market and subscribe to freedom of movement, to those who do not. Thomas Jorgensen, senior policy co-ordinator at the European University Association, which represents more than 850 higher education institutions in 47 countries, has said there “is no single associated model” and “it’s all up to negotiations”.100 Payment for associated country status in Horizon 2020 is usually calculated on the basis of GDP. Researchers can apply for funding in the same way as those in Member states.

48.There is some evidence that countries can still be net gainers outside of the EU. Alastair Sim, Chief Executive of Universities Scotland, said that:

Israel, an associate country [ … ] is very successful at levering funds from Horizon 2020 and doing collaborative research in the European Union but does not accept the full pillar of free movement of people. So there may be an example there that requires a bit more exploration as we move to define our future relationship with Horizon 2020 in a way that works for the UK.101

49.However, Switzerland did lose access to Horizon 2020 after it limited freedom of movement.102 After negotiations with the EU, Switzerland decided against placing quotes on EU citizens entering the country, and as of 1 January 2017, Switzerland has again been granted full access.103 Times Higher Education speculated that the EU was using research programmes “as a weapon to enforce free movement”.104

50.Associated country status does come with one significant drawback: associated members have much less say in the strategic direction of the research framework programmes. Currently, the UK, as one of the strongest research nations in the EU, has a lot of influence to lose. Professor Tony Stevenson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University said we would lose our influence on both research themes and where the money is spent.105

51.At our meetings we also discussed the possibility of the UK not being part of the EU research funding frameworks and whether they could be replaced domestically. Professor Michael Arthur invited us “to stare over the abyss of the cost of reproducing” the whole system, including the mobility of people, networking, working across multiple boundaries, research excellence, early career fellowships and more.106 It is clear to us this would be a mammoth undertaking and is the least preferable option. Nonetheless, as the situation is conceivable, the Government needs to be doing much more to prepare over the next two years to mitigate against this possibility.

52.The Government should prioritise continued access to Horizon 2020 and other EU research funding after the UK’s exit, and negotiate access to future EU funding programmes. The Government should also make a contingency plan for investing the same level of funding it received from the EU domestically in a scenario where access cannot be negotiated.


53.Erasmus+ is the European funding programme for Education, Youth, Training and Sport. Mobility for study comprises around 60% of its €14.7 billion budget from 2014–2020.107 Each year, Erasmus+ funds around 16,000 UK students to undertake a study or work placement abroad, and funds around 2,200 higher education staff to train or work abroad.108 The UK also benefits from inward student and staff mobility from the other 32 countries participating in Erasmus+.109 Around 27,000 European students attend higher education instituions in the UK through the scheme. It has been estimated that around two thirds of all higher education mobility which last one academic term or more is conducted through Erasmus+.110

54.Our evidence was close to unanimous in its support for the positives of Erasmus+, including the value it added to students for their skills and employment prospects, the improved international reputation for participating universities, and the strengthening of alumni networks and interchange between international partners.111 We received multiple individual submissions from former Erasmus+ students who praised the dramatic impact it had on their studies and careers.112 We heard from several stakeholders that continuing membership of Erasmus+ should be a priority for the Government, including the National Union of Students, Newcastle University, Southampton Solent University, and many more.113

55.Whether or not the EU will want to allow continued participation may depend on decisions over freedom of movement. The experience of Switzerland is an example of a country changing its freedom of movement with the EU. Switzerland lost access to Erasmus+ following negotiations with the EU and replaced it with the Swiss-European Mobility Programme.114 The difference may be that the UK is a more popular destination for EU students and as such an agreement could benefit both sides.115 Furthermore, Turkey and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia do not have full freedom of movement with the EU and are full members of Erasmus+.116 Nevertheless, the Switzerland example is illuminating and it is therefore important that an alternative option is prepared.

56.Another option instead of full membership is participation as a partner country, who can take part in some elements of Erasmus+ but not all. This was suggested by several universities, including Coventry University and the University of Liverpool.117 Others told us that partner countries have fewer places and less funding to offer, causing students and staff to face more mobility obstacles.118 Rosie Birchard, Director of External Relations for the UK Erasmus Student Network, criticised the idea of the UK being a partner country:

It is constraining. I have spoken to the version of me—education officer—in ESN countries that are partner members, and they have told us that this limits people’s opportunities, so we need to pursue maintaining our programme membership at all costs.119

57.We asked several witnesses whether Erasmus+ was replaceable if membership post-Brexit was unattainable. The response was mixed. Professor Alistair Fitt said that if we had to sacrifice something, Erasmus+ could be replaced with “Erasmus++” which could reach further around the world.120 Others expressed concern about how long it would take to rebuild a well-established programme, including setting up bilateral relationships with individual countries and ensuring widening participation.121 Estimating the cost of replacing Erasmus+ is not simple. The UK receives around €71 million a year for outward mobility.122 When the Swiss government set up the Swiss-European Mobility Programme to replace the loss of Erasmus+ membership, it spent around €23 million to fund 6,000 outward placements and close to 5,000 inward placements.123 A basic analysis is that UK higher education mobility is around four times bigger, so a UK equivalent might cost around €100 million a year. This would be higher if it were to target countries further afield.

58.A potential opportunity for a replacement programme would be to expand the pool of countries students and staff could travel to. The British Council said that the UK could forge links with countries outside the EU through new exchange programmes and scholarships.124 Cardiff University said that Brexit offered an opportunity “to create a new international outward mobility programme that could build on the most successful elements of the Erasmus+ programme”.125 Erasmus+ does already provide some global mobility, through the International Credit Mobility Scheme included from 2014, but Dr Jo Beall suggested we could do better.126

59.Modern language students comprise almost half of all outbound Erasmus+ students. Dr Beall said it was “an incredibly important programme” that is a cornerstone of modern foreign language courses.127 Given the concerns over foreign language skills in the UK,128 it is worrying that placements are under threat due to Brexit. As Professor Stevenson correctly raised at our session in Newcastle, by the time the 2017/18 intake of modern foreign language students prepare to go on Erasmus+ placements the UK may no longer be a participating country.129

60.Continued membership of Erasmus+ would be the best outcome for the UK and the Government should consider this as a priority programme in its negotiations with the EU. If this proves impossible, it is vital that the mobility of students and staff is not impeded. The Government should guarantee it will underwrite any Erasmus+ placements potentially under threat in 2019. A replacement mobility programme will need to be drawn up at an early stage so it is ready to begin for the 2019/20 academic year. This replacement could focus on a wider net of countries around the world as long as it safeguards support for disadvantaged groups.

61.Whatever the result of the negotiations, the Government should develop an ambitious outward mobility strategy with universities, which increases the range of mobility opportunities to more countries and includes a baseline participation target.

Structural funding

62.Two of the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF), the European regional development fund (ERDF) and the European social fund (ESF), distribute around £100 million to the higher education sector in the UK for projects that benefit local areas and innovation.130 Examples include the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre at the University of Manchester and the Innovation Futures project at Sheffield Hallam University. It is likely structural funding will be a casualty of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, as these funds are distributed only to EU members. Importantly, though, the UK received only £1.67 billion in ERDF and ESF income in 2014/15, only 3.2% of the total sum distributed across Europe, and only an estimated 29% of the UK’s contributions.131 This makes the UK a significant net contributor.

63.We heard the structural funds were important in helping universities to support local growth and jobs. Universities UK said that they did this by “turning ideas and research discoveries into new companies” and “by fostering entrepreneurship and employability”.132 University Alliance described EU structural funding as “critical to disadvantaged areas in the UK” and that “universities often play a leading role in funnelling this money to partners”.133 When we asked one of our panels at Oxford what might be worth funding domestically, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, Professor Alistair Fitt said:

European structural funding is very important for the UK but I believe the UK does not get as much out of it as they put in. Structural funding can come with quite a few strings attached, come with quite a few risks and be quite hard to manage. If we were able to replace the amount of structural funding with our funds, that is a real opportunity that we could not only retain all that is best in that system but make it an even better system.134

Several of our submissions discussed the idea of spending this money through the national budget by creating a domestic programme.135 This would give opportunities to determine the level of funding available, where it should be distributed, and simplify the bureaucracy.

64.We recommend that as a replacement to investment from European Structural and Investment Funds the Government establishes a new regional growth fund which allocates funding on a similar needs-based system. Given the UK is currently a net contributor, this new fund could easily exceed the level of investment the UK has traditionally received from the EU. This would help to meet the Government’s aim to rebalance the economy.

85 HM Government, The United Kingdom’s exit from and new partnership with the European Union, Cm 9417, February 2017, para 8.51

87 As above

89 Department for Education (XHE0159) para 55

91 Imperial College London (XHE0193) paras 17–18

92 Sheffield Hallam University (XHE0168) para 17

93 Q107

95 Q9

96 Q40

97 University of York (XHE0156) para 8

98 Q46

99 Q49

101 Q183

102 The Swiss immigration referendum held on 9 February 2014 aimed to limit immigration through quotas. It was accepted by a majority of the electorate, but the Swiss government did not fully implement the proposals following protracted discussions with the EU.

103 European Commission, Swiss participation in Horizon 2020 (January 2017)

104UK has mountain to climb to emulate Swiss-EU crisis resolution”, Times Higher Education, 24 December 2016

105 Q183

106 Q126

107 Department for Education (XHE0159) para 28

108 UK Erasmus+ National Agency (XHE0175) paras 1.6–1.7

109 All 28 member countries are in Erasmus+ and 5 non-Member states: Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein Turkey and Macedonia. See European Commission, ‘Eramus+: About’, accessed 30 March 2017

110 UK Erasmus+ National Agency (XHE0175) para 2.2

111 See, for example, British Council (XHE0199) paras 4.6–4.7, University of the West of England, Bristol (XHE0072), University of York (XHE0156) para 15, University of Warwick (XHE0131) paras 5.1–5.5

112 There is some evidence that this is more than anecdotal—a 2014 European Commission study concluded that mobility placements greatly enhanced students’ skills and their employability. See European Commission, The Erasmus Impact Survey: effects of mobility on the skills and employability of students and the internationalisation of higher education institutions (September 2014)

113 National Union of Students (XHE0092) para 34; Newcastle University (XHE0104) executive summary; Southampton Solent University (XHE0166) para 12

114 European Commission, ‘Information note on the participation of Switzerland in Erasmus+’, accessed 30 March 2017

115 The UK received around 27,000 EU students on inward placements; Switzerland received less than 5,000. See UK Erasmus+ National Agency (XHE0175) para 3.1, Universities UK (XHE0195), para 47

116 On the other hand, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has a shared visa liberation policy with the EU, and the EU and Turkey are currently negotiating for visa liberalisation. In addition, their inclusion in Erasmus+ may be tied to their status as EU candidate countries. See European Commission, ‘Visa policy’, accessed 30 March 2017; European Commission, ‘Cecilia Malmström signs the Readmission Agreement and launches the Visa Liberalisation Dialogue with Turkey’, accessed 30 March 2017.

117 Coventry University (XHE0064), para 1.8, University of Liverpool (XHE0171) para 11

118 See, for example, University College London (XHE0130) para 22, Erasmus Student Network UK (XHE0176) para 13

119 Q85

120 Q17

121 See, for example, Q166 (Professor Stevenson, Alistair Sim), Q85 (Dr Beall)

122 Based on an estimated €500 million for higher education mobility over 7 years. UK Erasmus+ National Agency (XHE0175) para 1.3

123 Universities UK (XHE0195) para 47

124 British Council (XHE0199) para 5.2

125 Cardiff University (XHE0157) para 21

126 Q82

127 Q82

128 Only around 12% of British adults in a recent poll could speak a foreign language to a high standard, and 41% said they were embarrassed by their foreign language skills. See British Council, ‘Language skills ‘more vital than ever’,’ accessed 30 March 2017

129 Q133

130 University Alliance (XHE0115) para 18

131 University Alliance (XHE0115) para 20

132 Universities UK (XHE0195) para 61

133 University Alliance (XHE0115) summary

134 Q5

135 See, for example, Association of Colleges (XHE0135) para 20, Nottingham Trent University (XHE0151) para 19

21 April 2017