This report explores the implications of Brexit for UK participation in the EU’s flagship programme for research and innovation, Horizon 2020, and the EU’s international mobility programme, Erasmus+, which provides opportunities for young people and teaching staff to study, work, and train abroad.
The UK is a respected and important partner in both the Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 programmes. It is a popular destination for mobility placements and a world leader in research, with an exceptionally strong science base. In return, the UK receives substantial amounts of funding, access to professional networks, and opportunities to connect and collaborate with European partners built over decades of cooperation under the shared framework of the Erasmus and Horizon programmes.
Under Erasmus+, €1 billion is expected to be allocated to the UK between 2014 and 2020 to support university student exchanges, work and vocational training placements, youth projects, and opportunities for staff working at all levels of education to teach or train abroad. Extra funding is available for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and those with disabilities or additional needs, to ensure these mobility opportunities are inclusive and accessible to all. The programme also funds cooperation projects between universities, schools and colleges across Europe, and brings together young people and decision-makers to help improve youth policy.
The UK is the second largest recipient of Horizon 2020 funding and has received 15.2% of grants distributed through the programme so far, totalling €5.7 billion. As well as funding UK research projects, Horizon 2020 supports scientific partnerships with countries across Europe and beyond, provides access to large-scale international research facilities and joint infrastructure, and offers fellowships for talented researchers to spend time working abroad.
As an EU Member State, the UK has access now to all Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 funding programmes. The Withdrawal Agreement would maintain this access, and UK participation in Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 would continue largely unchanged until both programmes draw to a close at the end of 2020, which coincides with the expected end of the transition period.
In preparation for a ‘no deal’ scenario, the Government has committed to underwrite funding from EU programmes until the end of 2020. However, the Government still needs to agree terms with the EU for UK organisations to continue to participate in Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 projects as third country entities. We were concerned to learn that the European Commission has thus far been unwilling to engage in discussions on ‘no deal’ contingency plans, and urge both parties to work together to avoid disruption to research projects and UK and EU nationals on Erasmus+ placements. There is also an urgent need for greater clarity on how the Government intends the underwrite guarantee to operate in practice, including who will disburse the funding and what terms and conditions will apply to beneficiaries.
Of particular concern to the UK’s research community in a ‘no deal’ scenario is the loss of access to key sources of Horizon 2020 funding, including the European Research Council and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, which are not open to third country participation and so are not covered by the Government’s underwrite guarantee. The Government’s own statistics show that grants from these programmes account for about 44% of total UK receipts from Horizon 2020. We note that the Government is keenly aware of this issue and emphasise the importance of confirming replacements for these funding streams as soon as possible. The UK and the EU will also need to establish arrangements to maintain the free flow of data and regulatory alignment for clinical trials and chemical registration, which are essential to facilitating international research collaboration.
Whether the UK leaves the EU under the Withdrawal Agreement or in a ‘no deal’ scenario, it could still seek to participate in the successor programmes to Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020—‘Erasmus’ and ‘Horizon Europe’, which will run from 2021 to 2027—as a third country. We strongly believe—and it was the unanimous view of our witnesses—that it is in the UK and the EU’s mutual interest to preserve current close levels of cooperation on research and innovation and educational mobility, and that the UK should participate fully in the Erasmus and Horizon Europe programmes as an associated third country. We are encouraged by positive indications in the Political Declaration on the future UK-EU relationship that this will be possible.
Associate membership would not give the UK voting rights in the committees which oversee the strategic planning of the programmes, and so the UK would have less influence over the priorities and future development of Erasmus and Horizon Europe than would EU Member States. The strength of the UK’s science base should, however, help to ensure the UK remains an influential player in European research and innovation.
The financial contributions required to secure association to the successor programmes are likely to be higher than for Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020, as both programmes are set to have substantially larger budgets. The proposal to establish Horizon Europe also sets out a financial rebalancing mechanism, which would mean the UK could not be a net beneficiary of EU research and innovation funding, as it is today. Nonetheless, although the costs of participation will be greater, so too will be the opportunities for funding and international collaboration offered under the larger 2021–2027 Erasmus and Horizon Europe programmes. We consider the cost of securing association to them a worthwhile investment to preserve access to all programme funding streams and international collaboration opportunities that raise the standard of education and support excellent science in the UK.
If the Government is not willing or able to secure association to these programmes, alternative UK funding schemes would be needed. However, it would be a formidable challenge to try to replicate at a national level the substantial benefits of the EU’s programmes for research and innovation and international mobility.
As for Erasmus, the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation acknowledged that the value of the programme, and the partnerships built through it over the past 30 years, could not simply be equated with monetary spend. We were struck by the stark warning that mobility opportunities for people in vocational education and training would “stop in their tracks” without Erasmus funding, and we are particularly concerned that losing access to the programme would disproportionately affect people from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with medical needs or disabilities. The time and resources required to establish and maintain exchange partnerships without the support of Erasmus could also be a prohibitive burden for many smaller organisations.
The EU’s research and innovation programmes also provide clear benefits over and above grant funding. They support cross-border research partnerships, provide access to large-scale research facilities, joint infrastructure and equipment, and facilitate the mobility of the most talented researchers across Europe. We note that the Government has committed to increase spending on research to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, but it is clear that it would take many years for any UK alternative to emulate the strength and productivity of the research collaborations built through the EU’s research programmes, and the prestigious reputation of funding instruments like the excellence-based European Research Council grants.
We urge the Government to confirm whether it will seek full association to the 2021–2027 Erasmus and Horizon Europe programmes as soon as possible, to maximise certainty and stability for UK students and researchers, and to enable them to plan for any changes.