As the possibility of a no-deal Brexit becomes increasingly likely, and with time running out before the March 30th deadline, those involved in the higher education sector in the UK are becoming increasingly worried with what this would mean for British universities. Among the various concerns is the question of the grants worth over £1 billion that British universities receive annually from the European Union as members of the Horizon 2020 programme.

Horizon 2020 is an EU research and innovation programme that makes some €80 billion available to universities over a 7 year period (2014-2020). As this programme reaches its end, plans are in place for its successor, Horizon Europe, another 7 year programme, which will have more funding, around €100 billion, to distribute among EU institutions. It has been estimated that the UK received around €8.8 billion in EU funding for research between 2007 and 2013, and contributed an estimated €5.4 billion. The UK has also been the most successful country in receiving grants from the European Research Council, being awarded over 1,850 grants between 2007-2017, the most of any EU member state. Recipients of these funds have been awarded numerous honours, including six Nobel prizes.

However, many are warning that time is running out for the UK to reach a deal that would allow them to benefit from Horizon Europe, this time as an external or associate member. This would require that the UK pay into the scheme, a sum that is estimated to be between £1 – 2 billion pounds annually. Their position as a net beneficiary, receiving more money in grants than they paid in, would certainly not be feasible after Brexit, regardless of a deal being struck or not. Even if a deal is reached by the March deadline, many are concerned that this would not leave the UK with enough time to have everything in place to secure funding under the Horizon Europe programme. A failure to do so could possibly lead to British universities falling behind their European counterparts.

Not only would a no-deal Brexit lead to the UK being unable to apply for the Horizon Europe funding, it would also disrupt any research that is currently being undertaken under the existing Horizon 2020 project.

However, Brexiteers in the government are likely to balk at any suggestion that the UK pay anything to the EU. The Higher Education Minister Sam Gyimah has said previously that Britain does want to continue in the Horizon project, but told the commons that “we will not do it at any price.” He stated that he would fight for the right for British scientists to move freely between the EU and UK – although how this would be possible without the UK signing up for the remaining three pillars of the common market remain unclear.

Theresa May has expressed her support for continued cooperation in this regard, stating in a speech given in May 2018 that “the UK would like the option to fully associate ourselves with the excellence-based European science and innovation programmes, including the successor to Horizon 2020.” Chris Skidmore, the new Universities and Science Minister has said that any talks concerning the inclusion of the UK into any future EU funding project could take over a year. Despite his meeting with the EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Communication Carlos Moedas, which he described as being a positive one, Skidmore has said that until there is certainty over the manner in which the UK will leave the EU in March, no talks can begin. Talks would have to begin after the March deadline, when the UK has ceased to be a member state.  

The UK may also face challenges coming from within the EU. A Romanian MEP who is one of the two rapporteurs leading talks on the future rules of the Horizon Europe project, Dan Nica, has suggested that associated countries should not be granted European Research Council (ERC) grants. This, as well as more technical matters of having agreements and proper legal infrastructure in place mean that the future for British universities as leader of European research is uncertain at best. The vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool Janet Beer wrote in the Guardian earlier this month that without a deal “it is no exaggeration to suggest that this would be an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take our universities and our country decades to recover.”