Jens-Peter Gual, secretary general of the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), said research funding is the biggest issue at stake for universities in government negotiations, at one of two panel discussions addressing Brexit held during the three-day event in Liverpool.
Commenting on the UK government’s promise to underwrite any Horizon 2020 funding until the country leaves the EU, Gual said: “It’s a good thing but it’s kind of a minimum. What we need to have is stabilisation because we’re going through that transition phase now. What we can do is relatively limited.”
“We need the collaboration, we have to strengthen our relationships to the British institutions and the people there”
He lamented that Germany was, “more or less losing our cooperative co-leader under the umbrella of the European Union” and said UK-European partnerships made the region more competitive.
“The UK has been the cornerstone of the competitiveness of the European Union for the past decades so we’re losing considerably in our competition with the US, we don’t have the full power of the UK within so that should be the political aim,” he said. “We need the collaboration, we have to strengthen our relationships to the British institutions and the people there.”
Janet Beer, vice-chancellor at the University of Liverpool, said the university stood to lose some £50m in EU research funding as a result of the referendum. Meanwhile, 650 European staff at the university face an uncertain future.
“Of course the insecurity for them endures for as long as the government doesn’t give us assurances about what will happen as regards their status,” she said adding that the university has already received 750 EU applications for 2017 “and as yet we don’t know what the funding regime is”.
Early applications to UK universities must be received by October 15 with most other applications due by January 15, 2017.
“We need to find some way of facing the future and reestablish our values, reestablish our reputation for inclusiveness and openness in the world and we need government help in this,” charged Beer.
Speaking with The PIE News, Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, added that a clear call on EU student funding “is urgent”, but in the meantime the organisation is operating on a business as usual basis.
“The government is going to have to act to deprive European students of eligibility for loans and to make it difficult for universities to offer them UK level fees so until they say they are going to do that, we are saying nothing has changed,” she said. “I would like to see that in writing from a minister but I think that can be the message for now.”
At the Universities UK conference earlier this month, Minister of Science and Universities Jo Johnson acknowledged that universities have a “burning, burning need for clarity” on the topic of funding schemes for EU students in the UK. However, he was unable to offer any direction other than to say that EU-funded research projects would be advanced by the Autumn Statement.
“There’s a determination to fix this and a determination to make sure that international collaboration particularly in Europe doesn’t stop with Brexit”
Martina Weiss, secretary general of Swiss Universities, said the country’s own negotiations with the European Commission after the 2014 referendum to introduce quotas for all migrants into Switzerland have been affected by the UK’s vote.
“We realised we have no chance of getting anyone in Brussels to discuss all that. There are different priorities now in EU Brussels, Switzerland is a minor issue,” she said adding that negotiations between Switzerland and the EU will be more closely scrutinised.
“It’s more difficult for us to get a good deal because everyone is looking very closely… it cannot be too beneficial because then the UK would want the same thing as well.”
For collaborations between UK and Swiss higher education institutions specifically, Weiss commented: “We’re negotiating with a partner which has bigger problems themselves which is more difficult for us.”
Even though the looming uncertainty of Brexit was never too far from discussions, delegates from Europe and the UK vowed to remain positive.
“We had so many messages from European partners saying look this is terrible we feel bad but we’re going to work to make sure we can continue to collaborate,” said Stern.
“There’s a determination to fix this and a determination to make sure that international collaboration particularly in Europe doesn’t stop with Brexit and I don’t think it will.”