Guest blog: Universities, Brexit and European Structural Funds – what next?

19 Sep 2017

The Highlands and Islands is one of the UK’s - and Europe’s - most remote regions, situated in the north-west periphery of the EU. Our population is less that of Brussels, yet our area is greater than Belgium, covering more than half of Scotland’s land mass and including almost 100 inhabited islands.

Historically, infrastructure was limited - including the lack of a university based in the region. That changed with the advent of the University of the Highlands and Islands, starting as a small ‘project’ in the early 1990s and achieving full university title in 2011.

Our early development coincided with the Highlands and Islands first being awarded additional Objective One funding for European Structural Funds in 1994, with the region retaining some form of enhanced status until the current programmes. This was due to the region’s economic performance lagging behind European averages, but we have seen a steady improvement over the various funding periods, with much of that success resulting from EU investment.

This includes the significant investment in the University of the Highlands and Islands - from European Regional Development Fund funding for our estates, research facilities and IT infrastructure, to ESF funding for additional students and online course development, to collaborative work with other higher education institutions in remote, sparsely populated regions funded through INTERREG and Framework programmes.

In summary, EU collaboration and investment has played a major part in our university’s development and has helped to shape it into the exciting, innovative institution it is today.

We share the same concerns about Brexit with others across the sector on future access to Horizon 2020/Framework programmes and research collaboration, the threat to student and staff mobility through the likes of the Erasmus+ and Marie Skłodowska-Curie programmes and the very serious implications for our non-UK EU national students and staff. The sector has done a good job of lobbying on this and we’ve been kept well informed through helpful briefings from various sources.

However, we have a few additional concerns of our own as well!

We would like to see recognition that universities - particularly those with a strong involvement in regional economic development, like the University of the Highlands and Islands - have built up a lot of partnerships and innovation/research and development initiatives through a synergistic approach to EU programmes. The benefit from this goes far beyond a simple arithmetic calculation of the funding received for a string of projects.

This approach would include, for example, investment in basic infrastructure and capacity through European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF), working up relationships through student/staff mobility (Erasmus+), collaborative research through Horizon 2020 and joint projects on cross border issues through various INTERREG programmes - all working in complement with each other towards shared objectives.

There are two key points arising from this:

  • The ability to plan strategically through this synergistic approach, instead of a scatter-gun series of more opportunistic projects, is crucial. This has allowed our university to maximise the benefit from EU investment in the longer-term, through economies of scale and sequence planning. Simply replacing individual allocations of funding on a piecemeal basis will not achieve the same result. Such strategic planning has facilitated collaboration on EU initiatives across different regional partners (local government, regional economic development agency, voluntary sector) as well as with our counterparts in other member states - and lead to greater benefits for us all.
  • Although programmes like Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ are undoubtedly of great importance to the higher education sector, the role that ESIF investment has played in supporting university contributions to regional economic development must not be over-looked. We need to be engaged in discussions not only about the amounts of funding allocated to this in future, but the mechanisms for agreeing regional priorities and accessing funds. Similarly, INTERREG programmes have played a crucial role in fostering transnational partnerships to address concerns which transcend regional/national borders. A prime example of this is the INTERREG VA Cross Border programme, which supports collaboration across the west of Scotland and regions in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, on issues such as marine energy and environmental transport routes. These partnerships have taken decades to develop and have achieved excellent results - they are now in danger of being cut short and this will have a detrimental impact on university collaboration.

So, whilst we welcome the Government’s objective ‘to seek agreement to continue to collaborate with European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives’ it is essential that the value of wider collaboration with our European partners through various other programmes, like INTERREG, and the ability to plan strategically about how we engage, including in any new plans for repatriated funds, are not forgotten.

Linda Stewart

Director of European and International Development

University of the Highlands and Islands

Follow on twitter: @ThinkUHI


Collaboration on science and innovation; a future partnership paper’, HM Government, Department for Exiting the European Union, 6 September 2017