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Back to the Horizon – A look back at years of uncertainty and remaining challenges for the higher education sector

  • 7 September 2023
  • By Marco Cavallaro
  • This blog was kindly contributed by Marco Cavallaro, a doctoral student at the University of Lugano in Switzerland.

The UK and the European Commission finally reached an agreement for the full participation of UK-based researchers and organisations in Horizon Europe, the most ambitious Research and Innovation funding programme to date.

This puts an end to almost three years of restricted access since the start of the programme and seven years of debilitating uncertainty since the Brexit vote.

This also puts the UK fallback Plan B or Pioneer programme for international research collaboration back in the drawer, where it belongs if I may say. As outlined in last year’s HEPI Policy Note on Plan B, a UK go-it-alone alternative can hardly replicate the attractiveness and reach of an EU-wide programme.

A look back at the mostly non-financial but critical costs of this long period of uncertainty.

Without formal association to Horizon Europe, UK universities were not eligible to host European Research Council’s (ERC) grantees. The UK government offered ERC grant winners who applied with a UK-based host, the possibility to receive the funding from UKRI. Despite this, and given that ERC grants became a strong marker of status and have long-term implications for scientists’ careers, this loss of eligibility for receiving ERC funding represented one of the major losses for the attractiveness of the UK higher education sector. Already in 2018, when it was still fully eligible, the UK lost its status as the most preferred destination among ERC Starting Grant applicants for the benefit of Germany. Since the start of Horizon Europe in 2021, 41 of the 378 UK-hosted winners moved to another country to keep the ERC label on their CV.

Although the UK guarantee funding also covered the funding for participation in collaborative projects, the non-association heavily hit UK participation. When comparing Horizon 2020 with the first years of Horizon Europe, the UK lost four positions and is currently in seventh place in the ranking of most successful countries in Horizon Europe. Since the start of Horizon Europe, UK-based scientists lost the possibility to lead European collaborative projects. UK-based coordinators had to be replaced by their colleagues based in EU member states or associated countries, sometimes also delaying the start of the project. The presence of both EU and UK funding bodies in a single collaborative project added layers of bureaucracy as partners needed to consider different payment and reporting schedules.

UK is now back to being treated like EU Member States and its higher education system regains at least part of the attractiveness lost after the Brexit vote. A part of it, because Brexit had a much wider impact on partnerships, resources and capacities of UK universities. For example, the number of students experienced a notable decrease due to the decision made in 2021-2022 to terminate the UK tuition fee agreements for EU citizens who were enrolling in UK degree programs. Foreseen and actual complications in terms of immigration policies have also made the UK less attractive in Horizon Europe mobility schemes.

In 2020, the UK government opted to withdraw from the Erasmus+ student mobility program and introduced the Turing scheme as its replacement. Unlike Erasmus, which facilitated both UK-based students going abroad and EU-based students coming to the UK, the Turing scheme focuses solely on supporting UK-based students going abroad.

Through the European Universities Initiative, the Erasmus+ programme is supporting the establishment of European Universities, i.e., transnational alliances of universities cooperating in education and research. UK universities can participate but they are not eligible for any EU funding and will be required to bear the cost of participating. Unfortunately, no UK university is involved in the seven newly established alliances. The UK is thus missing out on the establishment of new transnational partnerships and on properly contributing to this new direction for higher education in Europe, whose benefits were emphasised in a recent insight paper by the director for education and internationalisation at the University of Warwick, a partner in the EUTOPIA European University.

The loss of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) also heavily affected certain universities and SMEs, as notably highlighted in two HEPI blog posts by the University Alliance’s Deputy Head of Policy and the Deputy Director of Research, Innovation and Impact at the University of Leicester. The UK Shared Prosperity Fund launched in April 2022 and serving as a domestic replacement, faced scrutiny for its limited effectiveness in addressing the diverse regional requirements, when compared to the ERDF.

Regaining full access to Horizon Europe is certainly a huge relief for the UK-based scientists and their peers in the EU.

Hopefully, this will be the first milestone leading to the re-association or, at least, closer ties and better synergies with other EU programmes that largely benefitted UK universities and society at large in the “pre-Brexit era”.

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