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Universities and a ‘no-deal’ Brexit: some rather desperate misrepresentations

Written by Sir Noel Malcolm

We expect universities to be places that cultivate critical thinking, dispassionate analysis and respect for evidence. The letter to MPs recently published by representatives of higher education displays none of those qualities.

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On 4 January 2019, with a fanfare of publicity, an ‘open letter to MPs’ was issued by a group of organisations representing higher education in the UK, led by ‘Universities UK’ and the Russell Group of universities.

(For the full text, see:

Its purpose was to urge MPs to ‘avoid the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal on 29 March’. As the letter put it, ‘It is no exaggeration to suggest that this would be an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take decades to recover.’

I have read this letter carefully, and I have to say that I am bewildered by the degree of misrepresentation it contains. We expect universities, above all, to be places that cultivate critical thinking, dispassionate analysis and respect for empirical evidence. This letter displays none of those things. To warn of taking ‘decades to recover’ from the effects of a so-called no-deal Brexit is to exaggerate wildly; and the solemn statement that this is ‘no exaggeration’ serves only to compound the absurdity.

European research funding

The main focus of the letter is on the effects of a no-deal Brexit on the ability of UK universities to receive European research funding. This comes to them, currently, under the ‘framework programme’ known as Horizon 2020. Like other spending programmes of the EU, Horizon 2020 runs on a seven-year basis; as its name suggests, it will continue until the end of 2020, when the entire EU budget cycle terminates and a new one begins. (For more details on the funding system, see my previous article:

Article 137 of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement contains the general provision that ‘the Union programmes and activities committed under the multiannual financial framework for the years 2014-2020 … shall be implemented in 2019 and 2020 with regard to the United Kingdom.’ So it is true that if the Withdrawal Agreement is implemented, there will be a seamless continuation where this funding programme is concerned.

But the Withdrawal Agreement is an agreement only about the transition period, which is envisaged to be 21 months (i.e., until the end of the current EU budgetary septennium in December 2020). What really matters is the eventual settlement – to be negotiated during that period – that will determine the UK’s long-term relations with the EU thereafter.

As we already know, the UK will seek to become an ‘associated country’ in the EU’s research funding programme. In her speech at Jodrell Bank on 21 May 2018 Mrs May said:

‘The United Kingdom would like the option to fully associate ourselves with the excellence-based European science and innovation programmes – including the successor to Horizon 2020 and Euratom R&T. It is in the mutual interest of the UK and the EU that we should do so. Of course such an association would involve an appropriate UK financial contribution, which we would willingly make.’

At present there are 16 associated countries, including Bosnia, Israel, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey, which participate fully in the system and pay a national contribution based on their GDP. It will be hugely in the interests of EU researchers to include the UK, which is home to so much path-breaking research, on a similar basis. So it is very reasonable to assume that this will be the long-term position.

And what if it turns out that we are going to leave without the Withdrawal Agreement? Here the long-term goal, of associate membership, will be exactly the same, but the negotiation to achieve it will need to be speeded up. Most likely there will be two phases. The first will be a relatively quick, temporary agreement on associate membership, to keep the UK in the Horizon 2020 programme for its final two years, on payment of a suitable amount. There are many research projects currently under way, with the money carefully budgeted for and already partly disbursed; there are others due to start in 2019, for which the funding is already set aside. By far the least disruptive option for Horizon 2020’s own administrators, therefore, would be to come to a rapid agreement on keeping the UK in the system until December 2020. The agreement for the long term (or, at least, the next seven-year cycle) could follow – though its terms and contribution level would be very much the same.

As always, the term ‘no-deal’ Brexit can be misleading here. What it really refers to is the absence of a single general deal; but that is compatible with the presence of many particular deals. This deal would naturally be one of them.

But what if no such temporary agreement is made? Here too we already know the answer. Soon after the referendum, on 13 August 2016, the Government announced that if the UK were to leave the EU without an agreement on continued participation in Horizon 2020, it would step in and make the equivalent payments itself. As the then Minister for Science, Jo Johnson, said, ‘By underwriting Horizon 2020 funding in this way today, we are again demonstrating the importance we place on maintaining the world leading research that takes place in the UK.’

Perhaps there is some uncertainty here about whether the Government’s pledge covers only the grants that will have been promised by Horizon 2020 before March 2019, leaving a gap in 2020. The whole tenor of the Government’s pronouncements on these matters during the last two and a half years suggests that such a gap would also be filled. But if that has not been definitely stated, one might reasonably expect Universities UK, the Russell Group and their sister-organisations to be asking for a clearer and fuller promise.

Again, there may be uncertainty about certain categories of Horizon 2020 project from which UK researchers would be excluded, under EU rules, if the UK failed to achieve associate membership of the system. Here too the Government’s whole approach so far indicates that it would step in and make equivalent payments to the researchers concerned.

To press for a clearer guarantee of that, as this open letter does, is also a reasonable act of lobbying. But the same cannot be said of warning that any ‘no-deal’ Brexit would be ‘an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take decades to recover’. The worst-case (and most improbable) scenario here is that there would be a dip in funding, in some categories, of less than two years. That would indeed have very negative effects for particular researchers – but only for the short term, not creating an overall academic setback that would last for ‘decades’. (To add a little perspective here, we should recall that EU research funding of all kinds contributes only 2.6 per cent of all UK university income; this worst-case scenario involves losing only a portion of that.) The long-term future will almost certainly involve the UK being a full participant in these EU programmes, whether we leave with a ‘deal’ or not. And if there is any uncertainty about that, it will be the same uncertainty in both cases.

EU students and academics

A secondary topic of the letter is the situation of EU students and academics in the UK. It says:

‘Our 50,000 EU staff and 130,000 EU students, not to mention the 15,000 UK students studying in Europe, are starting the new year facing significant uncertainty about their futures.’

It gives no particular reason for this statement, other than to say that ‘The valuable exchange of students, staff and knowledge would be seriously damaged.’ We are left to infer that under a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, it will become ‘seriously’ difficult for academics or students from the EU to remain in the UK, or for new ones to come here. But no basis is given for any such claim.

The Government has given assurances that all EU citizens who have come to this country up until now, and until 29 March 2019, will still have the same basic rights to be here that they have hitherto enjoyed. Where academics are concerned, the outline it has given of its post-Brexit immigration policy already puts an emphasis on skilled workers. (Possibly the most junior post-doctoral researchers may fall below the standard income threshold, so that their prospective employers will have to make a case for their employment; but something like this already happens all the time, when post-docs who are non-EEA citizens apply for Tier 2 visas.)

As for EU students: they have already received full assurances from the Government. On 17 April 2017 the Government announced that all EU students beginning their courses in 2018 would have their status (as subject to the ‘Home students’ rate of fees, and able to receive UK student loans) guaranteed for the entire duration of their course. And the same promise was made on 2 July 2018 about those applying to begin courses in 2019. (See Some of these students may be starting four-year undergraduate courses; in which case they will still benefit from this promise up to the summer of 2023, more than four years after Brexit.

Since the letter also mentions the 15,000 UK students studying in Europe, it is only fair to add that their position, in the event of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, is rather less clear. If there is any serious uncertainty there, Universities UK would do well to address its lobbying activities to Brussels. But one must doubt whether those students are in any serious jeopardy. Some are there under the Erasmus exchange scheme, which the UK government has also said it wishes to remain part of. (This is perfectly possible for a non-EU state; Turkey, Serbia and Macedonia for example, all participate fully in the scheme.) Others are paying fees and maintenance costs themselves, and the host countries’ economies benefit from that – rather more than the UK does from many of its EU students, to whom it has given many hundreds of millions of pounds in loans that will never be fully repaid.

But for Universities UK to issue a public letter saying that EU students in the UK are now ‘facing significant uncertainty about their futures’ is quite irresponsible. It is an attempt to instrumentalise them, by projecting onto them – and, very possibly, causing in them – fears that are utterly unfounded.

Misrepresentation – for what purpose?

In its talk of a setback lasting ‘decades’, its failure to make any mention of ‘associated country’ status, and its sinister-sounding remarks about EU students in the UK facing ‘significant uncertainty’, the open letter is guilty of serious misrepresentation. Its tone also contrasts strangely with several official statements made in recent years by Universities UK itself. In August 2016, when the Government made its pledge to underwrite Horizon 2020 spending, a statement was issued by Alistair Jarvis, the Deputy Chief Executive of Universities UK:

‘This is encouraging news that provides much-needed stability for British universities during the transition period as the UK exits the EU, and provides an important signal to European researchers that they can continue to collaborate with their UK colleagues as they have before.’

In May 2018, after Mrs May’s Jodrell Bank speech, Mr Jarvis (now Chief Executive) said:

‘Universities UK has called for the UK to secure participation, as a full associate country, in the next EU research and innovation programme and the successor Erasmus+ scheme. It was very positive to hear the prime minister confirm that is the government’s intention.’

When compared with these measured statements (the first of which was made long before anyone could distinguish a ‘no-deal’ Brexit from one under the present Withdrawal Agreement), the latest public letter seems to verge on the hysterical. It is hard to avoid the overall impression that this open letter was cooked up rather hurriedly to serve a political purpose, in these final days before the expected parliamentary vote on the Withdrawal Agreement.

If so, this would not be for the first time. On 20 June 2016, in the very last days before the referendum, a public letter was issued by the Vice-Chancellors of 103 UK universities, urging people to vote Remain.

(For the text, see:

In grand but vague terms it warned: ‘Voluntarily cutting ourselves out of the world’s largest economic bloc would undermine our position as a global leader in science and innovation.’ The impression was given not only that UK universities depended on the EU for research funding, but that if we left the EU it would be impossible to continue that arrangement – which, as the existence of the many ‘associated countries’ shows, was a significant falsehood. Six out of the seven signatories of the latest public letter also signed in 2016. These were passionate Remainers in 2016; while they may have made some small mental adaptations to changed circumstances since then, one cannot help feeling that they are, at heart, academic Bourbons – people who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.


Putting the open letter issued in June 2016 alongside the one that has just been isssued, one cannot fail to be struck by the following two passages:

2016: ‘The impact of our universities on our local communities and economy should not be underestimated.  Every year, universities generate over £73 billion for the UK economy – £3.7bn of which is generated by students from EU countries, while supporting nearly 380,000 jobs.’

2019: ‘As a sector which contributes over £21 billion to UK GDP every year and supports 944,000 jobs, it is critical to the national interest, to the economy, communities and wider society, that the UK’s universities thrive post-Brexit.’

Can it really be the case that, in just under two and a half years, the contribution of the universities to the UK economy has fallen by £52 billion? And, even more remarkably, that while it has so fallen, the number of jobs it supports has risen by 564,000? Or is it perhaps the case that when the most senior representatives of our universities have a political end in view, other considerations, such as a concern for establishing the objective truth, may be thrown out of the windows of their no doubt very grandly appointed offices?


This is a revised version of this article. One criticism made in the original version has, after further consideration, been omitted here; the overall argument remains unchanged.

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About the author

Sir Noel Malcolm