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Amid predictions that higher education will be changed forever by the current pandemic, Professor James Miller, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University, suggests the innovative ways the sector is responding to the crisis will make it even more valued in the future.
The current crisis has underlined the critical role played by the UK’s experts and researchers and the institutions supporting them, as well as the need for collaboration between them, says Dr Joe Marshall, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business.
As a growing number of universities move teaching and assessment online in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the University of Derby is holding a virtual conference which aims to support staff in making the transition.
The Office for Students is leaving it up to universities to decide on particular approaches to the Coronavirus pandemic rather than issuing specific guidance, and has promised to minimises its regulatory demands on the sector in response to the crisis.
Universities and science minister Jo Johnson has told universities it is “business as usual” for projects currently funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, and that they should “continue to bid for EU research funding with confidence”.
In a letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, he confirmed the pledge made over the weekend that the government would “underwrite the payment of such awards, even when specific projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU”.
This means that the government will guarantee research funding granted from the EU’s €80 billion (£69 billion) fund after Brexit. UK institutions can also continue to bid for funds from it while the country remains a member.
Universities have been concerned about research funding following the UK’s referendum vote to leave the EU, despite assurances given by the pro-Brexiteers before the vote.
In Mr Johnson’s letter, published by HEFCE, he tells universities: “The work you do has made the UK a world-renowned powerhouse in science and innovation.
“Essential to this is collaborating with partners across the EU and sharing our expertise to pioneer discoveries and techniques that have a positive impact on millions across the world. That is why we have provided reassurance for Horizon 2020 projects.”
He added that the UK would “continue to be a world leader in international research and innovation” and that the government expected to ensure “that close collaboration between the UK and the EU in science continues”.
On Saturday, the Chancellor Philip Hammond said EU funding for farmers as well as that given through Horizon 2020 would be guaranteed. A letter sent by David Gauke, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, attempts to address the concerns of various sectors and “the uncertainty for recipients of these funding streams”.
Mr Gauke wrote: “Multi-year projects administered by government with signed contracts or funding agreements in place, and projects to be signed in the ordinary course of business before the Autumn Statement, will be fully funded, even when these projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU”.
Commenting on the news, Alistair Jarvis, Deputy Chief Executive of Universities UK said: "This is encouraging news that provides much needed stability for British universities during the transition period as the UK exits the EU and provides an important signal to European researchers that they can continue to collaborate with their UK colleagues as they have before.
"Horizon 2020 research funding supports British researchers to collaborate with international partners to deliver cutting-edge research that benefits the economy, society and British people.
"We hope that the Government will now move quickly to address the uncertainty amongst EU students considering applying to British universities by confirming that those beginning courses before we exit the EU will be subject to current fees levels and financial support arrangements for the duration of their course."
Professor Dave Phoenix, Chair of MillionPlus and Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University, said:
“This is excellent news for universities and offers significant reassurance to researchers working on vital projects. However, guarantees for research funding only go part-way to ensuring stability in UK universities during the Brexit transition.
“The Chancellor now needs to confirm that access to loan funding for EU students who commence their courses before Brexit is also guaranteed for their full period of study. This is crucial for UK universities and given students are already seeking information for 2017 entry is increasingly urgent.”
Dr Sarah Main, chair of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said:"The assurance that the Treasury will underwrite successful EU research bids up until the UK exits the EU, and for the lifetime of the award after we leave the EU, is a considerable commitment that potentially stretches 7-10 years into the future. This surely shows the commitment of the Government to science.
"What we need now is to secure the longer term conditions that will enable science to thrive - a suite of policies that sustain flow of global talent, an 'in house' regulatory framework for the UK that enables us to work with the whole world, and an investment programme that sees the UK step up to the ambition for research and innovation set by Europe and the United States."
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