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Disruptive relations with the EU and institutional resilience in the UK and Switzerland

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 8 December 2021

Tatiana Fumasoli and Lucy Shackleton. 

The UK and Swiss higher education systems share characteristics: strong academic performance, high levels of internationalisation in the staff and student body, and a global reputation.

They also share an uncertain future regarding their relationship to Horizon Europe, the European Union’s flagship research and innovation programme.

While provisions for UK association to Horizon Europe were included in the terms of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), at the time of writing, UK association has not been formalised by the EU, and EU Research Commissioner Mariya Gabriel has indicated that no progress can be made before ‘transversal’ political issues regarding the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol are resolved.

Switzerland meanwhile was excluded from association to Horizon Europe following a break-down of EU-Swiss negotiations toward a bilateral treaty, to the dismay of the Swiss scientific community.

This is the second time Switzerland has been relegated to ‘third country status’: it was excluded from Horizon 2020 (the predecessor programme to Horizon Europe) in 2014, following a referendum to limit freedom of movement – reducing significantly Swiss participation in EU funded programmes, and causing long-term damage to perceptions of Switzerland as a stable partner for research, and as an attractive destination for talent.

In this context, the UK and Switzerland clearly share an interest in a more pragmatic approach to research cooperation from the European Union, exploring bilateral cooperation in higher education, and sharing experiences regarding the implementation of bridging/transition measures.

However, comparisons between the UK and Switzerland and any consideration of the likely impact of exclusion or non-association in either country, must be contextualised with reference to their distinctive higher education systems, as well as wider historical, geographical and political differences.

First, the Swiss and UK political contexts are distinctive. Switzerland would and has sought to mitigate the impact of exclusion from EU programmes against the backdrop of closer ties with EU member states, while the UK Government has prioritised efforts to pivot away from European partnerships, in line with the logic of ‘Global Britain’ and a divorce from Brussels. This is clearly visible in the two countries’ ‘Erasmus alternatives’: the Swiss-European Mobility Programme (SEMP) constitutes a de facto funded addition to the Erasmus programme, while the Turing scheme is an outbound programme, with an implicit focus on increasing mobility to non-European destinations.

Second, internationalisation in Switzerland, particularly with respect to academic staff, is more reliant on European countries and particularly on its large neighbours: Germany, France and Italy. The UK, as part of the so-called ‘Anglosphere’, can draw on longer standing global relationships to attract non-EU international staff as well as students.

Finally, systemic differences in the ways that the two systems are organised and funded impact on their capacity to absorb external shocks. The Swiss university sector is more diffuse and internally less competitive, and so can be expected to be more resilient to sudden and negative changes. Equally, it is well funded from its cantonal and federal authorities, allowing for financial buffers. The potential impact of such a change would be mitigated by concerted efforts from the federal and cantonal governments.

The UK system, on the other hand, would be likely to be affected more significantly, but not in the same way for all universities. Hence one would expect that the stronger institutions would cope better than the others, as they would leverage their organisational capacity, financial reserves and global standing to balance possible losses (fewer EU students, fewer EU academic staff, reduced participation in European projects).

Ultimately the impact of non-association in either system is unlikely to be clear for some time, and would, in part, depend on the scope, scale and nature of the contingency/mitigation measures put in place. For example, institutions’ capacity to engage with EU funded programmes in the medium-term could be preserved by a ‘mirroring’ approach, like the one taken by the Swiss Government, intended to align nationally funded alternatives with EU programmes.

Up to now, both the Swiss and UK Governments, and higher education systems, have been clear that securing association remains the optimal solution for scientific cooperation, and the use of Horizon Europe as a ‘political football’ risks undermining an EU success story.

What remains to be seen is how firm the domestic political consensus in favour of Horizon Europe is in both contexts, and how long the UK and Switzerland will be willing to wait.


For a more in-depth exploration of the differential impact of disruptive relations with the EU on the UK and Swiss higher education systems, please see the recent European Institute policy paper ‘In and out of the European Research Area: System and Institutional Resilience in the UK and Switzerland’ written by Professor Tatiana Fumasoli to inform a recent European Institute-convened roundtable between UK and Swiss research leaders.

Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the authors, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Photo is by Susan Yin on Unsplash.

This post first appeared on the UCL European Institute’s blog.

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