In June 2019, RESEARCHconnect attended the Westminster Higher Education Forum Keynote Seminar in London. The event focused on priorities for international research partnerships, exploring issues of vital importance to the sector, including funding, new global opportunities and future European collaboration.
The event could not have come at a more crucial time for the UK’s higher education (HE) sector. Concerns about funding, international collaboration and attracting the best worldwide talent have been exacerbated by continued uncertainty over the impact of Brexit in the short and long term. Further uncertainty had been added by the contest for the new Conservative Party leader.
Against this backdrop, it was no small task for the experienced and varied panel to attempt to provide some clarity to the audience. Nevertheless, the day provided some invaluable insights into a number of core topics.
One of the most crucial ‘unknowns’ facing universities is future access to European funding after Brexit, particularly access to Horizon Europe. The current state of play was laid out by Re Hobley, Deputy Director of the EU Exit Negotiations and Engagement at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), whose team is leading on the Horizon Europe negotiations and the Future Economic Partnership negotiations.
While Hobley confirmed that negotiations about Horizon Europe itself were progressing well, the main issues affecting the UK are still yet to be decided, namely: the Budgetary discussions, which will set out how much it would cost to be part of Horizon Europe and, crucially, the Article that discusses the terms on which third countries participate. Negotiations have slowed with the election of a new European Parliament, but Hobley confirmed that the UK is engaging with European institutions and individual Member States to ensure the UK has the option to fully associate in the future. She also confirmed that the situation was the same for the Euratom Research and Training programme.
It was stressed that the Government remains committed to backing UK researchers and innovators and is considering alternative options in case the UK does not associate to Horizon Europe. In the meantime, the UK is looking to ensure there are ‘friends in the room’ should the UK leave before negotiations conclude. The advice was therefore to ‘wait and see’ how events develop in the coming weeks and months.
Nevertheless, the HE sector will be watching intently, and the mood was summed up by Professor Nora de Leeuw, Pro Vice-Chancellor, International and Europe at Cardiff University, who said that anything less than full association is ‘below par’ and would not be as good as full association. She also expressed concerns over the nature of any alternative funding arrangements put forward by the UK Government, and stressed that any arrangements should be long term and recognise the value of all subjects, embracing the arts as well as science.
Another important point raised was the need for close regulatory alignment with the EU. The Policy Manager at the Wellcome Trust, Martin Smith, stated that there is a real need to align regulation with the EU in the context of Brexit. This was further emphasised by Dr Cat Ball, Senior Policy Manager at Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), who stated that medical research charities are committed to continued involvement in EU funding programmes, as well as accompanying regulatory alignment to underpin that collaboration.
The delegates also noted that there is a real opportunity to strike a good deal with the EU in relation to science and research. Dr Ball highlighted the fact that there is a lot of goodwill on both sides to secure a good deal for science and innovation, noting that science can be an ‘olive branch’ in that context.
Another incredibly important issue for UK universities is ensuring that the best researchers and institutions continue to collaborate and visit the UK in the build-up to and aftermath of Brexit.
Sophie Barrett-Brown – Senior Partner and Head of UK Practice at Laura Devine Solicitors and who specialises in immigration – provided an overview of the different routes that will be available to EU nationals once the UK leaves the EU. She noted that EU nationals will be able to get a visa for three years if there is no deal, but this will not lead to any permanent status in the UK. She also highlighted the fact that the main Tier 2 route, which grants access to sponsored workers, can commonly cost up to £18,000 in Government fees for a worker and a family of four coming to the UK for five years. The cost alone, as it stands and without consideration of other matters, would be a huge challenge for researchers and institutions.
Indeed, the extent of the potential impact of these costs was demonstrated by Dr Sarion Bowers, Head of Policy at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. She stated that the Institute spent £50,000 last year on visa fees, but is facing a 170% increase in these costs, which over the Institute’s next five-year funding cycle works out as nearly £750,000.
Furthermore, Bowers warned that this goes beyond costs and into practicalities, stating that people need to stay in the UK for extended periods of time if they are to foster ideas and benefit the economy. She noted that it is getting ‘increasingly difficult’ to get visitors in, citing one example where the director of an African research institute was refused a visa to visit, an incident that she described as both ‘embarrassing’ and ‘shocking’ for everyone involved.
This concern was supported by Professor Danny Donoghue, Member of the Executive Board of the Coimbra Group, who stated that there was a contradiction between the fact that the UK has a number of funding mechanisms to encourage engagement with a range of countries around the world, but the Home Office can have a negative attitude to foreign researchers, resulting in admin getting in the way of stated ambitions.
Addressing this point, Sophie Barrett-Brown stated that senior officials at the Home Office are very much in ‘listening mode’ about this issue. Additionally, Martin Smith of the Wellcome Trust stated that he would shortly be meeting with the Deputy Permanent Secretary from the Home Office to take up these concerns, accompanied by about 80 examples of refusals relating to science conferences and short visits that Wellcome believes are unwarranted.
While Professor Danny Donoghue stated that he was ‘extremely concerned’ about post-Brexit partnerships and student exchange, he outlined how partnerships could be strengthened ahead of Brexit through networks such as the Coimbra Group, a network of 39 universities across Europe. Coimbra has established its own Student Exchange Network as a direct result of Brexit, and Donoghue stated that networks have a strong role to play in both lobbying politicians and engaging with partners across and beyond Europe to establish sustainable partnerships.
Hilary Layton, Director of Global Engagement at the University of York, also provided crucial insight into ‘what works’ when setting up and sustaining research partnerships. She stated that the most successful strategic partnerships work best where relationships already exist – most particularly existing research relationships. In any case, preparation is key, and a detailed mapping exercise of the links between institutions and researchers, and their specialisms and priorities, is always the first step when establishing partnerships. Layton explained how the university looks at a range of management information systems, news, websites and sources of grant and contract funding to gather a strong evidence base for potential partnerships.
Building on this solid start, the sustainability of partnerships is also enhanced by introducing multiple elements such as PhD mobility, undergraduate mobility, teaching links and so on. There is also a need to understand the R&D priorities of other nations and to seek synergy wherever possible, and for support staff from research development teams and from different countries to have the opportunity to meet each other, to ensure the relationship is a genuinely authentic one.
While the event overall highlighted the concerns of the research and HE sector, it also illustrated how successfully and creatively the sector is adapting to not only survive but to thrive in a situation where times are changing and certainties are hard to come by. While the sector still faces a frustrating wait for certainties over its future ability to apply for European funding, the event highlighted that this does not mean it cannot take the initiative and develop long-term, sustainable partnerships with institutions and networks that can transcend the impacts of Brexit.
RESEARCHconnect will continue to monitor all the latest updates relating to Brexit and provide an accurate, up-to-date report of all the latest funding opportunities available as the situation develops.
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