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A reflection on the evolution of higher education and research policies of the European Union, within the perspective of the Brexit vote

09 November 2017

By Sir Timothy O’Shea
Principal University of Edinburgh

These are interesting times in Higher Education and Brexit, of course, poses a variety of new challenges for universities.

The University of Edinburgh is, and always will be, a truly global university. We are one of the most internationally collaborative research universities in the UK with almost 55 per cent of our research output published with international co-authors. Collaborative research partnerships drive our institutions worldwide and we must ensure that our institutes continue to benefit from EU research programmes. In the past 10 years, 30 per cent of our research outputs were co-authored with EEA partners. This is achieved in part through our participation in the EU’s Framework Programmes for Research and Innovation. We have engaged in more than 300 large European collaborative research projects, 12 per cent as leading partner, contributing to the EU’s policy priorities in the areas of energy, ICT, high performance computing and health research.

Horizon 2020 is the largest ever EU research and innovation programme, with nearly €80 billion of funding available over seven years (2014 to 2020). The UK’s status as a full participating member of the H2020 Programme has not changed as a result of the referendum. Edinburgh is the largest recipient of Horizon 2020 funding in Scotland and received the 7th largest share of Horizon 2020 funds among all participating higher education institutions. Since the referendum, Edinburgh’s research applications to H2020 have increased by 22 per cent and we are currently involved in 91 H2020 projects with a value of €77.6m.
UK Universities must continue to encourage their staff to apply for European research grants and to be a part of multi-country collaborations to ensure that our research making a difference on a global scale.

Much has been made of EU student and staff numbers in the UK following the referendum, yet at Edinburgh EU student and staff numbers have remained buoyant in the wake of last year’s vote. Our total numbers of staff from other EU member states has grown by around 250 since the Brexit referendum. We have the second largest number of European students of any UK university, the largest number in Scotland and our EU student recruitment continues to be strong, with increased numbers joining us this September.

We all need to inform debate and lead discussions, and membership of groups such as LERU and Coimbra Group will facilitate this. Indeed, the recently published Coimbra Group paper on the development of the next European Framework Programme for Research and Innovation emphasises the importance of a robust and comprehensive future programme to maintain and strengthen the position of the EU as an effective and competitive knowledge economy.

Brexit does indeed pose challenges and so far, we have been able to meet these challenges, but we must all keep a clear focus. Edinburgh’s priorities will be to work with partner universities across the world to influence our governments, to ensure the terms of Brexit support us in continuing to encourage mobility, to recruit brilliant students and staff, and to participate in EU programmes, all of which will deliver benefits for the world’s economic, intellectual, cultural and social wellbeing.