Brexit would throw the future of UK academic research into question

"The UK is a net recipient of research funds from the EU"

May 13, 2016
students wearing Mortar Boards and Gowns after graduating ©Chris Radburn/PA Wire/Press Association Images
students wearing Mortar Boards and Gowns after graduating ©Chris Radburn/PA Wire/Press Association Images
Read more: Twelve things you need to know about Brexit 

The referendum on our membership of the European Union is fast-approaching and there is a clear possibility that we will vote for Brexit. Debate so far has been dominated by the macroeconomic consequences of leaving the EU, but what would a "Leave" vote mean for our universities?

While university world rankings should come with a clearly labelled health warning, the consistently strong performance of British universities in the most reputable rankings suggests that higher education is something the UK excels at. So when there is near unanimity among Britain’s vice chancellors that Brexit would be bad for the future of our sector, it is worth considering why.

Put simply, we benefit significantly from the social and economic landscape that results from our EU membership. We are competing with better resourced counterparts around the world, notably the long-established institutions of North America, and increasingly well-resourced newcomers, particularly in Asia. Being part of the EU enables us to bridge the gap with these places (for example, in funding—more on that later.)

Dare I say it, my own institution, University College London, is one example of an institution thriving under the current system. As reported recently in the Financial Times, we plan a significant expansion on the site of the Olympic Park, (part-funded by a loan from the European Investment Bank) needed to provide laboratory and teaching space for our growing numbers of academics and students.

A big factor in this growth is the ability that we—and other British universities—have to attract staff and students from around the world. The intellectual capital this creates puts our universities in a strong position to compete for research funding from beyond our borders, which has a knock-on beneficial effect on employment and wealth generation.

The "Leave" campaign has not given sufficient attention to the question of how Brexit would affect the freedom of universities and our ability to research and teach as we do now.

While research and scholarship have always been cross-border activities, today, more than at any time, success depends upon collaboration between nations, and a significant strand of this collaboration involves Europe.

Thanks to the EU, we have free exchange and mobility of people across the continent, which amounts to a free exchange of culture, creativity and ideas. Over 200,000 young Britons have studied and worked in Europe through the Erasmus programme. Over 125,000 students from the EU are currently studying at British universities, and 15 per cent of our academic staff come from other EU countries. Our European students and staff add a great deal to that diversity of cultures and associated academic creativity. In London alone, EU students generate £788.9m for the regional economy and 7580 jobs.

I suspect that the number of Europeans studying and working in British universities would drop quite rapidly following Brexit. While again we have had few details from the "Leave" campaign, it seems probable that EU students would, post-Brexit, be charged at full international student rates, and consequently be far less likely to come. There would likely be no Erasmus mobility programme to and from the UK and no development (for the UK at least) of the European Research Area, making the cross-border movement of postdoctoral researchers and academic staff much more difficult. The cultural loss to our universities would be significant.

There are countless examples of how European and EU cooperation and collaboration gives us the economic and human scale to deliver scientific activities that would not be achievable at a national level. Inside the EU, researchers can pool infrastructure, data, talent and resources to achieve more together than they ever could alone.

The UK is a net recipient of research funds from the EU, receiving over 15 per cent of the funding allocated under the last EU Framework Programme. We achieve more competitive research grant funding than our UK contribution to this part of the EU budget, and this money would be at risk from Brexit. Some commentators have suggested that this funding would simply be replaced by the UK Government, but we have absolutely no guarantees. Such thinking also misses the point that EU research projects are so valuable precisely because they are collaborative, bringing together multiple perspectives from across national boundaries.

The broader funding picture is also uncertain. Our current public investment in research is 0.55 per cent of GDP while the average among advanced countries is 0.8 per cent. In this context, I fear for the future of science and research in a post-Brexit Britain, in which many sectors will be looking to replace funding which previously came from the EU.

Brexit would create a significant challenge for UCL. We are currently the highest funded university in the EU for Horizon 2020 funding and we also rank in the top three for funding from the European Research Council. This funding supports roughly one in eight of our research staff, working on programmes across fields as diverse as archaeology, infectious disease and cosmology. Brexit would leave the future of this work uncertain.

It is our responsibility in the higher education community to spell out the impact Brexit would have on what is currently a UK and European success story. I expect the majority of the UK’s research and academic community to remain opposed to Brexit and I hope that we can persuade others to consider these key points as this debate unfolds.