Dr Mikko Kuisma works as senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University.

The impact of Brexit on universities and research is difficult to predict

The initial shock caused by the result of Britain’s referendum has subsided, but research communities are apprehensive about their future. For British universities, Brexit may bring a heavy blow in the form of diminishing numbers of students and funding. The continuity of EU funding is also a concern for many throughout Europe.

Several sources are estimating that British universities are likely to suffer financial hardships as a result of Brexit. The decision to leave EU came at a precarious time, since many universities had recently borrowed money for the expansion of their facilities in preparation for the expected rise in numbers of students from other EU countries following the government’s decision in 2013 not to place restrictions on the number of foreign students.

“The university sector had been following an austerity plan long before the Brexit vote,” says Dr Mikko Kuisma, Senior Lecture in International Relations at Oxford Brookes University.

“Many saw the reasons behind this as being ideological, as the public sector has been in the line of fire, especially for the ruling Conservative Party. Funding has been cut and further cuts are feared in certain fields, such as the humanities and social sciences. British universities have also been engaged in a dispute over salaries for nearly two years, over which the trade union took industrial action last year.

The government and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, have pledged to cover any gaps in universities’ post-EU funding.

“This means billions of pounds each year. It is quite reasonable to ask where the government is going to find that money in a situation in which there does not seem be any to spare for any other public spending, such as the NHS,” Kuisma points out.

Speculation is rife in university corridors, even though the greatest panic and disbelief have now given way to quiet concern. Individual researchers and research groups have already made some anticipatory moves. For example, some British researchers have been asked to withdraw their funding applications, since it is not clear whether they will continue to be eligible for the funding. There are also rumours about foreign researchers and teachers who have become reluctant to apply for or accept posts in Britain.

“Many of the EU citizens working in British universities are considering relocation to another country, even after a long residence in the UK. University people are also speculating as to which universities are most at risk once the influx of EU students begins to peter out. Isolated cases and rumours raise concerns and have created an atmosphere of uncertainty. Nobody seems to have ready answers and this is causing great frustration”, Kuisma says.

The Treasury has guaranteed that the EU-funded projects in the UK can continue as before for the part of the projects whose funding was already decided on, even after Britain leaves the EU. But what happens after that is a mystery.

“One would have to be quite the oracle to be able to predict how Brexit, when it happens, will affect research co-operation based on EU funding,” says Eija Auranen, Service Manager from the EU Research and Innovation Programmes (EUTI).

“However, there are currently many non-EU countries, researchers and companies participating in various research projects with similar rights and obligations as their EU counterparts. For example, the Horizon 2020 programme, a seven-year EU programme directing funding research and innovation with an envelope of approximately EUR 80 billion, is participated in by Norway, Iceland and Turkey will full recognition.

These countries have signed special association agreements with the European Commission and make a separate payment to the EU.”

According to Auranen, a similar arrangement will be made with the UK, but at the moment it is not clear what this agreement might look like. Brexit has yet to take place and Article 50 has not been invoked. Research projects, their preparation and research collaboration will continue as before. The European Commission and British authorities have both announced that, for example, the implementation of the Erasmus+ programme will continue unchanged for the time being.

Once the Brexit negotiations commence for real, arrangements for the transition period will be required.

“The uncertainty in the research community shows in the questions we at the EUTI office of Tekes have received. Researchers are worried about whether it is worth their while to begin preparations on a EUfunded research project with British partners, whether the projects are scheduled to carry on beyond Brexit and whether their British colleagues will no longer be eligible to participate in EU-funded projects. As it stands, UK researchers, research groups and companies are participating as before in research and innovation funding applied directly from the EU, so collaboration with them may continue,” Auranen says.

text Arja-Leena Paavola

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