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The higher education case for Europe

In the week of the European Elections and with Europe high up in the UK's political debate, Chris Hale takes a look at the higher education policy case for EU membership. With much of EU policy and legislation going above the heads of many in the UK, there are several key themes that matter tremendously to university and require the sector's full engagement at home and in Brussels.
This article is more than 10 years old

Chris Hale is Director of Policy at Universities UK and a member of Wonkhe's Editorial Group.

If there’s any certainty in UK politics at the moment it is that Europe will continue to dominate the national debate. The outcomes of the European and local elections this week will give further prominence to this, not least if UKIP have a good showing, as is widely expected.

What is less certain, however, is where this will actually lead us as a country and what it will mean for higher education. Much will depend on the outcomes of the general election next year and the outcomes of any ‘in/out’ referendum should that materialise in 2017 as David Cameron has promised.

Universities, along with business have now clearly pinned their flag to the mast. The recent Universities UK letter to The Times is a confident statement that we as a sector are better in Europe than on the margins.

The mobility of students and staff, our success in research funding and the beneficial collaborations this brings, along with strong policy influence we have are all reasons why Europe is central to our success.

Now the UK higher education sector is clear about where it stands, we need to join forces with the CBI and others and use the next three years to campaign strongly and develop the evidence base about the economic and wider benefits of EU membership.

We will also need to remember that business in Brussels isn’t going to stop whilst this is all played out to a conclusion, even if as a country we sometimes suffer from a view that UK membership is all that matters in European politics.

There is no direct EU Treaty competency for higher education, but with wide ranging regulation, economic and funding policy of strong relevance to universities, Europe will continue to influence and shape UK higher education up to 2017 and beyond.

With a new European Parliament and then a new Commission in the autumn this year the UK higher education sector must actively continue to influence and shape this agenda, something we have been very successful at to date.

Here are the four key areas I think that the sector should be looking to concentrate our attention with EU politicians and policy makers in Brussels:

Shifting EU investment priorities

Being in Europe isn’t all about the funding we receive, but it’s undeniably important to the UK research base and to our economy more widely.

Further to much negotiation the first calls for Horizon 2020, the successor to Framework Programme 7 (FP7), were launched at the start of this year. This new research funding programme has an enhanced budget of €80bn over 7 years.

The UK stands to do well in this, given the strength of our research base and that historically we have been disproportionately successful in these programmes. As of October 2013, the UK received just over c15% of the total FP7 funding.

The budget for H2020 was hard fought by the UK government and other EU countries, as part of the negotiations around the EU’s Muliti-annual Financial Framework (MFF), 2014-2020. The UK’s self-interest notwithstanding, we will need to continue to make the case for why this investment is important for Europe and why it should be further prioritised over historic concerns such as agricultural subsidies.

This will prepare the ground for the next EU budget negotiations and ensure we are well place to take any opportunities to secure further investment in growth arising from the Commission’s mid-term review on the MFF in 2016.

European Research Area (ERA)

The ERA has the objective of creating free movement of researchers, scientific knowledge and technologies across Europe. This is a laudable initiative, which the UK supports and plays an essential role in.

However, progress towards ERA objectives has been frustratingly slow. Despite the positive aspects of the ERA, the danger for the UK is that the incoming Commissioner for research and innovation initiates legislation to drive forward reform. Countries across the EU have very different needs and so what is required is targeted action and differential approaches, rather than one size fits all solution. For the UK, legislation in this area may have implications for institutional autonomy and lead to unwanted bureaucratic burden.

EU tax regime

EU tax law might not be something readers of this blog find themselves concerned with on a daily basis, but maintaining a favourable tax regime for those organisations operating on a not for profit basis or in the public interest is of strategic importance for UK higher education.

The Commission has recently consulted on a review of existing VAT legislation on public bodies and tax exemptions in the public interest.

In their response to the consultation the British Universities Finance Directors Group (BUFDG) stated that the primary exemption for education relieves approximately €12bn of annual income from VAT, which after taking account of estimated VAT loss on expenditure gives a net gain to the sector of €1.2bn.

Alongside this, having finally introduced the EU VAT exemption for cost sharing in the UK, it is important that we can keep this in place and push for it to be fit for purpose, supporting the development of shared services and efficiency in higher education.

Monitoring the progress of this review and ensuring we can maintain a favourable tax regime for higher education is going to be extremely important.


If oil was the life blood of the industrial economy, then in the world of open data information is the new black stuff and its flow is controlled and regulated to a significant extent by the copyright regime.

This is of crucial interest to universities who are major users and producers of copyright material. For example, the potential of text and data mining for research is significant and is making a major contribution to our research performance, particularly in driving forward medical research.

Recognising the world has changed, the Hargreaves review of copyright has led to some reform of the UK’s copyright regime to make sure we get the most out of these opportunities.

This updates regulations not reformed since the late 1980s and makes them fit for purpose in a digital world. For example, recognising the significance of text and data mining for research, the Hargreaves reforms will now ensure there is an appropriate exception to copyright to support this activity.

We need to make sure that European legislation on copyright aligns with this and does not cut across these important developments. The current EU Copyright Directive (the Information Society Directive) dates back to 2001 and it is time to open up this up and ensure that it can be modernised so as not to restrict exceptions made in for the research, education and cultural sectors.

These are a few of the many important EU higher education policy issues we need to be engaged with and which should be given priority attention by the UK.

There are of course many others we will need to continue to monitor and influence, such as data protection legislation, continuing to lighten EU funding reporting and audit regimes, as well as the inter-governmental Bologna and European Higher Education Area processes. Let’s hope that after 2017 we as a country and sector are able to work with our European partners so as to continue to fully engage with and shape these agendas.

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