This guest blog was kindly contributed by Dr Diana Beech, Head of Government Affairs at the University of Warwick and former Policy Adviser to the last three Ministers of State for Universities and Science. She was also HEPI’s first Director of Policy and Advocacy.
These are certainly three words I never thought I’d write – particularly not this time last year when, in my previous role as an adviser in government, the constant twists and turns of politics meant it was nigh-on impossible to keep things running smoothly on the day-to-day policy front. Yet, here we are one year later in the midst of what is probably the most troublesome period for UK higher education in our lifetimes, and we are not even mentioning the ‘B-word’ any longer.
Since the coronavirus pandemic struck the UK in March, and universities across the country began to realise just how severely global lockdown would impact domestic and international student recruitment – not to mention hamper progress on research – all eyes have been firmly fixed on getting us out of the immediate crisis. And this continues to be a mammoth task.
I’ve watched in awe as universities, including my own, took on the challenge of moving their academic engagement with students online, as well as essential support services, with next-to-no notice – all the while concentrating on graduating students, temporarily restructuring workforces to protect jobs, and accounting for lost revenue streams from unused student accommodation or empty conference, catering, arts and sports facilities. Given the seismic shifts experienced by our sector, we can almost be forgiven for taking our eyes off the ball and deprioritising the eventual shape of the UK’s relationship with the EU after this year.
Yet, while the ‘corona crunch’ has distracted the sector – to coin a phrase from former Universities Minister Jo Johnson – the clock certainly has not stopped ticking on the UK-EU negotiations and the UK Government is edging ever closer to the deadline at the end of this month to apply for an extension to the transition period of up to two years, should it be deemed necessary.
Until now, Downing Street has held firm, saying it will not accept any delay to negotiations, even if the EU were to offer one. But with less than a month to go before the UK Government is faced with the prospect of walking away from the negotiating table at the end of the year, irrespective of whether deals have been reached in all aspects of the UK’s future relationship with the EU, it is high time universities begin factoring in all that is at stake if those negotiations fail as well. And there is a very real risk this could happen, given both sides have reported little progress in the latest round of talks.
Even though discussions on future UK involvement in EU programmes, which include Horizon Europe, have reportedly been going better than most, we should not get our hopes up too soon. After all, it is no good reaching agreement on future UK participation in EU science if other aspects of the negotiations fail, including key agreements on removing technical barriers to trade (particularly regarding scientific equipment), ensuring the frictionless movement of people between nations, and refining other labour and social standards – all of which are vital if UK science is to thrive and prosper, and if the Government is ultimately going to realise its ‘2.4% ambition’ by 2027.
At the University of Warwick, we have already committed to remaining a European university irrespective of what happens politically. Like many other research-intensive universities in the UK, our researchers benefit greatly from European funding streams, and the Erasmus+ mobility programme continues to enhance the diversity of our community – benefiting both students and staff, not just by providing opportunities to study abroad, but also by welcoming incoming students who choose to make our university, city and region their home.
But our ties to Europe, and the wider world, run deeper than this. For the past year, we have been proud members of the EUTOPIA alliance, which is one of 17 winning projects under the European Universities Initiative seeking to address local and global challenges and create a new model for higher education across Europe. At Warwick, we have always believed the future of education lies in global partnership. That’s why we have just signed a new rolling agreement with our Australian partner for the Monash Warwick Alliance, to allow an open-ended partnership with students and staff on the other side of the world. And, through EUTOPIA, we are equally committed to building bridges throughout Europe.
In collaboration with our EUTOPIA partners in Brussels, Paris, Gothenburg, Ljubljana and Barcelona, we are already offering co-teaching of European PhDs as well as Double Masters programmes, and are investing considerably over the next five years in training for post-doctoral researchers who are tackling real-world challenges in fields such as data, health, welfare and sustainability. Solutions to such challenges are also sure to be all the more sought-after as the world emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic.
To ensure UK universities like ours can continue pursuing the science and research our country – and, indeed, the planet – needs, it is imperative we do everything we can now to stabilise our world-leading research base. This means not just focusing on short-term fixes to financial uncertainties caused by the pandemic, but also focusing on the longer-term protection of networks and collaborations that will guarantee the UK’s status as a science and innovation powerhouse for years to come – and many of these lie in Europe.
That’s why now is the time to put Brexit firmly back on the policy agenda, and make clear to Government that there are two key ingredients to safeguard the future health of UK science: the first being immediate support to sustain the university research base through the Covid-19 recovery effort (as is currently being discussed through the joint Ministerial University Research and Knowledge Exchange Sustainability Taskforce), and the second being securing a deal with our European neighbours which will protect the work and livelihoods of thousands of UK-based scientists for at least the next decade and beyond. President of the Royal Society Sir Venki Ramakrishnan was right earlier this week to warn Government that a failure to associate with Horizon would ‘do harm to UK science, our economy and ultimately the public’. In a nutshell, there is no point focusing on getting a life-raft out of the immediate corona-crisis, if we are just going to be left adrift afterwards.
So, while we, as a sector, make the case for increased Government support for research over the days and weeks ahead, let’s not leave the nature of the UK’s departure from the EU out the picture any longer. And let’s press the message home hard that the solution to the UK’s future scientific success lies not just in a one-off generous hand-out from Treasury, but in a strategic double-whammy of a hand-up into future European and international networks as well.