Brexit: the university mobilises


What will happen ? Will there be a Brexit deal? The uncertainty has affected universities, but UCLouvain is preparing. On the education side, the university will, if necessary, finance 2019-20 Erasmus+ grants. On the research side, many issues are on the table but the most important is the possible loss of a research partner that is a driving force of the scientific dynamic.

‘The United Kingdom is our third most important research partner’

‘We will not be discouraged’, Dana Samson asserts. ‘UCLouvain has set up a task force to counter as much as possible the negative effects of a no-deal Brexit.’ The pro-rector for international affairs, she reiterates that the UK is UCLouvain’s third most important research partner. ‘Both students and researchers seek mobility and exchanges with this important partner that offers a very stimulating scientific framework.’

Countering uncertainty

Since the failure to finalise an agreement last 31 March and the European Council’s acceptance of postponing the deadline until 31 October 2019, universities have been countering the uncertainty caused by the transition. Example: students must choose their international mobility destination one year in advance. But an exchange within the European Union ensures a more generous grant than one outside the Union, so given the doubt over whether the UK will remain in the Erasmus+ programme, UCLouvain is committed to maintaining, if necessary, 2019-20 grants at the current level. For its part, the Council of Rectors (CRef) has decided not to require British students to pay higher tuition fees.

The UCLouvain task force is closely following steps in the UK and Belgium to deal with a no-deal.

A weakened position

International pro-rectors’ main fear: ‘If the UK no longer participates in the next Horizon Europe research funding programme,’ Prof. Samson says, ‘research collaboration will only be possible through bilateral agreements between partners of the two countries. Given the overall context of the definition of French-speaking universities in Belgium and the limited resources of the FNRS, we’ll have much less leeway to make up for the lack of European funding than France or Germany.’ In addition, as researcher Jean-Christophe Renauld laments, ‘The UK is one of the strongest advocates for research in the European budget and its evaluation on the basis of scientific excellence. Its withdrawal may weaken the position of research in the whole of the European budget and strengthen the distribution of resources on the basis of geopolitical rather than scientific criteria.’ Meanwhile, UCLouvain is mobilising with its partners in networks such as The Guild (see box below) and the Council of Rectors to highlight universities’ point of view regarding the Brexit crisis.

Dominique Hoebeke

Brains without borders

The Guild, which brings together the best European research universities, including UCLouvain, reiterates that the success of European universities depends on their ability to freely circulate ideas via researchers, students and graduates. The association calls for investment in EU framework programmes to support research in Europe, including the UK.

Students who went abroad in September are covered

The motto today is business as usual. But worries persist. Students already seem to believe that the UK will no longer be part of the EU and they prefer to turn to Ireland or Australia. ‘It's not our wish. It would be a real loss’, says Stéphanie Francq, academic head for international student mobility in the UCLouvain Faculty of Law. Every year, approximately 160 of every 500 students go abroad, 15 to the United Kingdom. The university's partners also expressed their wish to maintain the relationship whatever happens. ‘The rector has also taken the lead in ensuring that UCLouvain would support Erasmus grants. It would be traumatic for everyone to stop. Erasmus has a levelling effect among all students, offering a small grant every month in addition to logistical support and connecting young people.’

A generous British policy?

The greatest doubt is financial. One way or another, these exchanges have a cost. With Brexit, Europe will stop sponsoring exchanges on the British side. Prof. Francq projects three possible scenarios. A negotiated Brexit could cover Erasmus ‘but won’t be without pain because then the United Kingdom will have to continue to pay.’ If so, the British could at least decide to pursue a policy that would remain welcoming, including continuing to exempt Belgians from their much more expensive tuition fees. ‘But if nothing’s done, the institutions themselves must allocate a portion of their budget for these exchanges as part of agreeing that tuition should not be paid on both sides. This is what’s happening today with our students going to the United States. Switzerland, for example, sponsors its departing students but also those it welcomes, outside the European programme. They’re generous, but I doubt that the United Kingdom will do the same. In the meantime, students who left in September are covered by European funding no matter what happens in October.’

Catherine Ernens

‘We’re anticipating administrative difficulties’

The entire international scientific community is worried. Research with the British is important, both quantitatively and qualitatively. A hard Brexit—no deal with Europe—is feared more than ever by both parties. ‘Most foreign researchers living in UK territory may find it more difficult to maintain links with their labs and colleagues in their home country’, says Jean-Luc Balligand, professor at the Institute of Experimental and Clinical Research (IREC). ‘They’ll be tempted to return to the continent. It's already happening.’ On top of this, some in the UK have suggested that in case of a hard Brexit, the UK wouldn’t pay its ‘debts’ to Europe. ‘In that case, most European funding instruments would no longer be available to UK researchers. Few European partners would be inclined to invest in collaboration with them. Therefore, it would cut us off from an important research force and hamper a whole series of collaborations we already have.’

Problematic exchanges

Prof. Balligand is coordinating a Horizon 2020 European project called Beta-3_LVH, in which Oxford is a close partner. He points to additional difficulties that will affect him. In the event of no deal, England may no longer feel bound by the same regulations as those of the continent. ‘This can be a problem for the exchange of even anonymised data. If England no longer feels bound by the General Data Protection Regulation, this could create problems in exchanging our clinical data, in which case the collaboration should be transferred to another laboratory on the continent. Even if it’s theoretical at this stage, the British could for example decide to favour collaborations in North America over Europe.’ The hope is that the UK will adopt a position like that of Switzerland or Israel, which has access to the European Commission's research funding instruments, by means of financial contributions. ‘Our Oxford partners are reassuring. I'm not worried about that side. Apart from European Commission subsidies, sponsorship financing is very active in the UK. But we have to prepare for administrative difficulties.’ C.E.

“The beauty of the EU is its long-term view”

Brazilian biologist Dr. Tania Lima is Director of Global Engagement at King’s College London, a role to which she brings experience in international collaboration in genomics, bioinformatics, and cancer research. Dr. Lima believes international problems are best solved by international cooperation.

What are the challenges of an orderly Brexit ?

Tania Lima: I believe most UK universities would prefer to stay in the EU, so if we leave, we must have a deal. Our networks in Europe took time to build and any barrier to our participation in them would be very detrimental to us. We want to remain in Erasmus – staff and student mobility is a priority for King’s. The UK’s enabling environment attracts the best staff, faculty, and students; we risk having less to offer in the future. We hope a deal will address our main concerns, so we and our partners can find ways to work together.

And ‘no deal’?

T.L.: Without a deal, we lose the legal frameworks we now rely on. We will leave Erasmus, and there will be great uncertainty about mutual recognition of qualifications. Supply chains, employment status, pensions, and student immigration status will all be tossed up in the air. I can’t imagine what it would be like sitting at my desk on November first. It will take a great deal of work to recover from a no-deal exit. Much of our current way of working may be lost forever.

What does Brexit mean for international cooperation ?

T.L.: The beauty of the EU is its long-term view; you know a programme will be there for ten years, a reliable, consistent funding source – particularly ERC and other programmes that enable mobility and exchange of best practices. These foster the high-quality multinational research essential to addressing global problems. If cooperation and access to funding become harder, academics will have to assess the situation carefully. Can the UK provide an enabling environment? If not, they will leave, and be welcomed by other institutions across Europe. The UK currently punch above our weight regarding research output in part because of participation in international programmes. That won’t stop, but we have already seen the number of grants with UK academics as coordinator decrease, and even the number of projects to which we are invited at all.

Will Brexit affect funding ?

T.L.: Each of the UK’s 106 universities is different. For King's, it varies by faculty and department from 2% to 40%, with an average of about 18%. Some UK universities get as much as 70% EU funding.

Could Brexit offer opportunities ?

T.L.: We have been asking ourselves that question, to see a crisis is as an opportunity, however unwelcome. We will have to be more fl exible, put more resources towards relationships that would have come more naturally before. Will we have more global opportunities? I don’t think so. Problems are global, so we already think globally. There won’t be more opportunities in the US, Canada, or China just because of Brexit.

Tadzio Koelb
Freelance journalist

European contribution by university (in euro) (2014–May 2018)

King's College London is part of the consortium that has signed a declaration of intent to form a European alliance currently comprised of UCLouvain, the University of Paris, the University of Oslo, the University of Aarhus, the University of Humboldt in Berlin and the University of Lisbon.

Article published in the September-October-November 2019 issue of Louvain[s]