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Vice-chancellors visit Brussels: making the case for higher education

28 April 2015

By Alex Leonhardt, Senior Parliamentary Officer, Universities UK.

Last week, vice-chancellors travelled to Brussels in the largest delegation that UUK has ever taken overseas. Developing collaboration with partners in Europe, making the Union work for UK universities, and defending the value of the EU to universities to a sceptical public are all going to be key challenges for the sector in the coming years - particularly with a referendum on the cards. It is not surprising that university leaders are increasingly looking to influence Brussels and build links with the colleagues on the continent.

This time they were there primarily to lobby the European Parliament and Commission on the cuts proposed to Horizon 2020 as part-funding for the proposed 'European Fund for Strategic Investment' - also known as the 'Juncker Plan'.

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz's recent blog for UUK mentioned this, but I'll give a little more detail. Horizon 2020 is largely focussed on providing grant funding excellent research which is collaborative in nature. There are a few strands with different focuses, but that's the top line.

By contrast the Juncker Plan involves debt financing and is focussed on a wide range of potential projects that find it difficult to attract private investment. In his response letter to the Financial Times on Tuesday, Vice-President Jyrki Katainen made clear that this would include 'research-related projects', but that phrasing reveals the difference: EFSI looks to be largely restricted to infrastructure projects, and wouldn't fund research itself. Debt-financing is, after all, a dreadful way to fund blue-sky research programmes where potential financial benefits and timescales are difficult to be certain of in advance. And besides, an awful lot of our higher education colleagues in Europe are not even legally allowed to take on loans.

So the UK's university sector has a challenge to defend a pot of research funding which, as Sir Leszek pointed out, is tried and tested. It's not a trivial challenge - the fact that the fund is nicknamed the 'Juncker Plan' demonstrates the degree of personal commitment and involvement that the commission president has invested in this project.

I'll confess to being a Brussels ignoramus. The corridors of Westminster are familiar, the Rues and Avenues de Bruxelles are new to me. Influencing in Brussels has its own challenges - and not only that of figuring out how to pronounce a Flemish street name when speaking French to a taxi driver when you speak neither language.

But the EU system also has its strengths, not least the degree of cross-party collaboration and consensus in specialist committees - something now developing in Westminster select committees too. So when university vice-chancellors were able to explain to MEPs from across political divides (and indeed country divides) why protecting Horizon 2020 was important, they listened and acted. Both the budgetary committee and the economic affairs committee have voted to oppose the use of Horizon 2020 funding.

What the final outcome will be is not yet clear. The opposition from the Parliament is just the starting gun to three-way negotiations between the Council, Commission and Parliament, who will aim to reach a compromise early in the Summer. The university sector now has to continue to lobby the three parties to protect Horizon 2020 research funding, and encourage the Commission to look elsewhere and think more creatively about sources of funding for the EFSI budget.

But there is more at stake than a few tens of millions of euros in research grants. If we are to persuade the public of the value of EU membership, we have to show them not only that the UK benefits, but that we have voice and influence with our partners - that it is something we do together rather than something which is done to us. Making these 'wins' in Brussels and communicating them to the public is going to be an essential part of persuading them that we are better off in.

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