Policy Update – October 2023

Ed Bridges, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Academy of Social Sciences 

Horizon / Pioneer

On Thursday 7 September, and after a protracted period of negotiation, the UK Government and European Union struck a deal over future association to the Horizon Europe and Copernicus programmes. The Academy of Social Sciences applauded the agreement in the hours that followed, having consistently emphasised that sustained association is essential for the retention and development of the UK’s world-leading social science research base.

It had been feared that a decision might wait until the Conservative Party Conference where the matter might become more heavily politicised. This had led to several organisations seeking to re-establish and re-emphasise the consensus over future association, with a Research Fortnight article (£) quoting the Royal Society, the Russell Group and Cancer Research UK all arguing that the UK Government needed to ‘get Horizon over the line’.

Key points:

  • Association will take place from January 2024, meaning that applications for all calls with closing dates or awards after 1 January 2024 fall under the association agreement. Any other successful bids made in 2023 will be supported by the UK Government’s underwrite.
  • UK taxpayers will not pay for the two and a half years in which they were excluded from the programme.
  • The UK will also have a new “automatic clawback” that protects the UK as participation recovers from that prolonged interim period.
  • An agreement for the UK to join the EU Earth-observation programme, Copernicus, has been secured – but the UK will not be associating to the EU fusion programme, Euratom, instead taking forward its own fusion strategy.
  • There will be a cap of 16% of annual contribution should UK scientists be unsuccessful in applying to Horizon Europe schemes, meaning it is likely that the UK will be able to take more out of Horizon than it puts in, without any clawback. This represents a major concession by the EU, who will also “aggressively” promote UK participation in the scheme to encourage other countries to work with British scientists.

The EU’s helpful Q&A guide contains further useful information.

Whilst the deal heralds the start of a fresh chapter in the relationship between the European Union and UK researchers, there will doubtless be some issues to iron out. One example could be around elements of promised infrastructure investment from the UK Government’s alternative plan, Pioneer, that many will argue ought to be pursued regardless of the new deal. Only a few weeks ago, England’s Science Minister was making a similar case, arguing that some Pioneer programmes should be launched immediately. Meanwhile, the next Horizon cycle is only four years away, and in the meantime UK universities will need to rebuild partnerships, redeploy capacity renegotiate their own internal plans.

Other news in brief

  • Challenging times for England’s university regulator: Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, Bridget Phillipson, has taken aim at the Office for Students in England, saying a “politicised” regulator for higher education was “wrong, unsustainable and going to change”. In comments made via video address to the UUK annual conference, she went on to criticise the regulator for concentrating “on issues that keep it in the papers” rather than facilitating the work of universities. Elsewhere, a report by the House of Lords industry and regulators committee added further pressure on the OfSE, calling for it to better understand and address challenges around university finances, and criticising its party political chair, James Wharton. The chair of the committee who developed the report has written a good piece about it here.
  • Fundamental flaws in the HE business model: UK universities spent £5bn subsidising the cost of their research in 2021-22 – an increase of more than £2bn in the last seven years, analysis from the Russell Group has shown. The report also highlights a shortfall in teaching funding, with UK students paying on average less in fees than it costs for universities to deliver their courses. The Russell Group said it cost £23,500 a year to educate a medical student, £14,000 for STEM courses and £10,500 for those in classroom-based subjects such as history. Fees in England have been limited to a maximum of £9,250 since 2017, a cap that will remain in place until at least 2025. Exacerbating the problem, international student numbers are under increasing pressure as both the UK’s cost-of-living as well as imminent increases in health surcharges and visa fees put off potential international applicants. A Times Higher article (£) also indicated that the costs are causing early career researchers to consider leaving the UK.