Fears over effects of no-deal Brexit on student exchanges and research funding

University staff and students remain “in the dark” about whether they will be able to access vital research funding and take part in exchange opportunities when Britain leaves the EU.

Higher education leaders are calling on the Government to prioritise full participation in the Erasmus+ exchange scheme and the Horizon Europe research funding programme as a no-deal Brexit looms.

Leaving the EU without a deal would be “catastrophic” for students at a time when universities are responding to the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the National Union of Students (NUS) has said.

Universities UK (UUK), an organisation which represents vice-chancellors at 140 universities, has warned that a no-deal Brexit could have “longer-term consequences” for the sector’s international competitiveness.

Full participation in the EU’s flagship Horizon Europe research funding scheme will be “fundamental” if Britain is going to continue to attract the best scientists and researchers in the years to come, the UUK has said.

The UK’s ability to participate in Erasmus+, which helps students study in other countries, may also come to an end without a deal.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), told the PA news agency: “We are a central player in EU research programmes and both the UK and the EU will be poorer without our involvement, meaning global research will also be diminished.

“The Treasury has recently promised funding for a domestic alternative to Erasmus+, but that will presumably exclude the ‘exchange’ element of Erasmus+ so is likely to be inferior.”

University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady told PA: “Students and staff from across the globe play a vital role within our universities and colleges, and the UK Government should be doing everything it can to make it easier for them to work and study here.

“Instead, the Government has moved to extend the hostile environment while leaving us on the precipice of no deal with our closest neighbours, and in the dark about potential future involvement in valuable programmes like Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe.

“Not only does this leave the future plans of many staff and students hanging in the balance, it undermines the outward-looking, collaborative approach upon which the success of our institutions is built.”

A UUK spokesman said: “No deal between the UK and EU risks immediate disruption to universities’ activities and could have longer-term consequences for their international competitiveness.

“The UK Government should prioritise full participation in Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ to enable universities in all regions of the UK to enhance the scale and impact of international research collaboration, mobility and partnerships.

“In the case of Horizon Europe, this will be fundamental to delivering the Government’s ambition to be a science superpower for decades to come and continue to attract the best scientists and researchers in a competitive global marketplace.”

The Government must publish full details on how funding will be replaced as soon as possible if full participation is not possible, the UUK has said.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice president for higher education at the NUS, added: “A no-deal Brexit would be catastrophic for students.

“If the Government want to show that they value education and international collaboration they must negotiate a deal that includes continued association to Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe.”