Research and Education

Last but not least of the issues I want to cover is another one close to me personally: research and education. I appreciate that this might not be at the top of everyone’s priority list when deciding how to vote in the referendum, but I have been asked about it and was interested for my own reasons. So I wanted to address the role the EU plays in funding science and research in the UK, how it affects science and higher education more generally, and what effect leaving the EU might have in these areas. I might need to apologise in advance for the statistically heavy nature of this post!

What does the EU do for research?

There are many ways that the EU supports or funds research and other higher education activities. The EU has a significant research and innovation programme known as Horizon 2020, which has a budget of €80 billion between 2014-2020 to promote science and research throughout the EU within a variety of different programmes and activities. In its previous programme from 2007-2013, the EU contributed almost €7 billion to research in the UK (the second highest recipient of funding, after Germany). In addition to this in the same time period the UK received almost €2 billion in structural funds for research and innovation activities from the EU, allocated to enhance capacity in the less developed regions of the EU member states.

Research by the Royal Society, based on statistics by the Office of National Statistics, found that in terms of research, development and innovation funding the UK is a net recipient of EU funds, contributing an estimated €5.4 billion between 2007-2013 and receiving €8.8 billion.

The EU also has its own research council, the catchily named European Research Council (ERC). This funds projects at various career levels for research being undertaken throughout the EU, on the basis of academic excellence. Of all the projects that the ERC has funded since its launch in 2007, the UK is hosting the most of all EU member states (1386, followed by 929 in Germany and 760 in France). In the period 2007-2013, UK researchers received €1,665 million, or 22.4% of the total ERC budget, as calculated by the Royal Society. The ERC represents 7% of the Horizon 2020 budget.

Part of the Horizon 2020 money is also going to the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions, which offers funding for researchers at all stages of their careers. Between 2014 and 2020, the programme is committed to supporting 25,000 PhD researchers and encouraging transnational and interdisciplinary research. Between 2007 and 2014, 3,454 British researchers were funded through the Marie Curie Actions, 4,053 British organisations participated in the programmes, and €1,086.4 million was awarded to British organisations, or 25.5% of the total funding from the programme in that period. This was the highest proportion of the funding for any EU member state, with the next biggest recipient, Germany, receiving just over half of this amount in the same time period. 

Looking at funding more broadly, in 2014-15, as calculated by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, research funding to UK higher education institutions from EU sources totalled £836 million, equivalent to 2.5% of the universities’ total income and 14% of the total research income (other big contributors to research income included research councils at 5.4% of total income; UK-based charities at 3.1%; UK central government bodies 2.9%; UK tax credits 1.5%, and industry 1%). This doesn’t include any money spent by EU students in the UK (tuition fees from UK and EU students are the biggest contributor to universities’ income, at 31.6% of the total, see more below) or the money received by the government from the EU, as discussed in my earlier post about the economy.


Access to many of these funding sources would likely be lost if the UK was to leave the EU. It is possible that the UK could retain access to Horizon 2020 as countries currently inside the European Economic Area (EEA), like Norway and Iceland, have chosen to be part of the programme. This comes with an economic contribution to the budget, in addition to the contribution these countries make to be able to access the single market (see my earlier posts on economy and trade). It is not clear whether the UK would negotiate membership of the EEA or if a country further outside the EU could access the programme.

But, beyond funding, the EU has other effects on education and research in the UK, including diversifying the academic body, mobility opportunities and research community development.

The EU has used the Bologna Process, a joint effort of education institutions and individuals and public authorities, to harmonise the structure of higher education in the EU. This means: encouraging the adoption of the three tier education structure (bachelors, masters, PhD); strengthening quality assurance processes in higher education institutions, and facilitating the easier recognition of qualifications between different member states. There are currently 48 signatories to the Bologna Process, including all EU member states and the European Commission. In 2010 as a consequence of the Bologna Process, the European Higher Education Area was created, incorporating the higher education sectors of all 48 members. This is not a part of the EU’s responsibilities, but the EU has been a part of the process and it has helped to facilitate the free movement of students and researchers between organisations and institutions in the EU member states.

Students from EU countries make up a significant part of the student body in the UK. Statistics from HESA show that in the 2014-15 academic year there were 124,575 EU students studying in the UK, across all levels (from first degree to higher degree). This is equivalent to 5.5% of all students in the UK at that time, and 28.5% of all students in the UK from outside of the country. Before 2012-13 students from the EU made up the highest proportion of non-UK students in the UK, but they have since been overtaken by students from China. EU students currently pay the same tuition fees as UK students, whilst international students from outside of the EU pay more. In the 2016-17 academic year, using the University of Warwick as an example, UK and EU students will be charged £9,000 per year for an undergraduate degree, whilst international students will be charged between £16,620 and £21,200 per year for the same programme, depending on country of origin and the particular course. University Chancellors have estimated that EU students generate £3.7 billion of income for UK universities.

In 2015, the Royal Society also found that 16% of academic staff in UK universities were EU nationals (other than the UK), and 12% non-EU nationals. For postgraduate research students, the figures were 14% from EU member states and 36% from outside of the EU.

Erasmus + is the UK’s exchange programme for young people. It builds on the previous Erasmus programme by bringing together seven different programmes so it now incorporates facilitating and funding travel for studying, training, youth opportunities and sport. Between 2013-2014, 15,610 British students took up opportunities with the Erasmus programme, the fifth highest number of all EU member states, and 27,401 students from other EU countries came to the UK through Erasmus. The majority of those travelling on the Erasmus+ use it for studying in higher education institutions, but these figures also include those who undertake traineeships (estimated to be around one third). These numbers represent approximately 0.5% of the UK’s student population, as estimated by the EU. A comprehensive study from 2014 found the Erasmus programme had a range of benefits not just for the students participating but also for the higher education institutions involved. Between 2014 and 2020 almost €1 billion of funding for Erasmus programmes is expected to be allocated to the UK, and  in 2015 the UK’s Erasmus budget totalled €118,049,562. There is also the Erasmus Mundus programme that enables postgraduate students to complete a masters course or PhD between two higher education institutions in different member states. In 2013-14, 36 masters students and 5 PhD students were funded through Erasmus Mundus. Access to the Erasmus+ programme would most likely be lost if the UK leaves the EU.

It has also been reported by some academics that the EU has facilitated the development of an extensive scientific community throughout the EU, which has benefited the science and research activities of its member states. It enables free movement of scientists and researchers and access to laboratory and experimental facilities in all member states, which would likely be lost if the UK leaves the EU.



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