Brexit and universities – The last pieces of the puzzle

From EU funding programmes, to travel and data transfer, the pieces of the puzzle are finally falling into place for universities post-Brexit. EUA’s Thomas Jorgensen provides an update on the situation, and a glance at what roadblocks may still lie ahead.

Five years since the Brexit referendum and more than six months since the final deal between the European Union and the United Kingdom was agreed, the final pieces are falling into place when it comes to cooperation between universities on both sides of the Channel.

The biggest worry for the sector since the UK chose to leave the EU in 2016 has been participation in EU funding programmes such as Horizon Europe or Erasmus+. The framework for this has been laid out in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the EU and the UK.

Until now, the UK has only wanted to participate in a handful of programmes, most importantly the Horizon Europe research and innovation programme. However, to the disappointment of universities on both sides of the Channel, it prefers not to participate in the Erasmus+ programme for student exchange and institutional cooperation.

For Horizon Europe, the last steps towards formal association are moving forward at a slow pace. However, the EU is so certain that the last formalities will be agreed that it has allowed UK entities to participate in the recently published first calls of the programme.

Research areas

In relation to Horizon Europe, there has been much discussion about the right of the EU to exclude non-EU countries from research areas deemed sensitive to Europe’s strategic autonomy.

In early drafts of the Horizon Europe work programme, the UK and Switzerland were excluded from research related to quantum computing and space. This raised eyebrows in the UK and Switzerland as well as in the broader European research community. Many member states also felt that the European Commission had gone too far in its zeal to protect Europe’s autonomy by excluding valuable research partners.

A compromise has been reached so that exclusions are not for whole areas of research but for individual cases for which there are explicit reasons.

For travel, the basic agreement between the parties foresees no visa requirements for short stays. For those travelling from the EU to the UK for longer stays, they will use the new points-based British immigration scheme. Researchers and students travelling to the EU will be covered by an EU directive that sets out fairly lenient rules for entry of these groups from third countries.

Data transfer

The last missing piece of the puzzle has been the question of whether EU entities could transfer personal data to UK partners. Here, the European Commission has decided that the present rules in the UK give adequate data protection so that personal data can be transferred. This will facilitate many kinds of cooperation, from organising conferences to health or social science research projects.

However, the area of data transfer needs to be followed closely. The European Commission can change its decision if the UK changes its domestic rules. This is not subject to negotiation; it would be a unilateral decision by the commission.

Moreover, there is an exception for the transfer of personal data related to UK immigration control. It remains to be seen what effect this exception may have, if any, on data transferred to UK entities in relation to visiting students or researchers from EU countries.

A new framework for cooperation

Generally, academic cooperation between the EU and the UK after Brexit has been positive. There are disappointments, particularly in relation to the Erasmus+ Programme, but in the past six months, a framework for the new type of cooperation has appeared that will bring certainty to partners in the EU and the UK – something that has been missing for the last five years.

Regarding Erasmus+, the fact that the UK will not participate could have negative effects on student exchange and on the possibility for universities in the UK and the EU to work together as institutions. UK universities will, for example, not count as partners in the European Universities Initiative.

The discussion regarding exclusion or inclusion in strategically sensitive research areas has shown that EU member states want the closest possible cooperation with the UK. The main cloud on the horizon is the potential for erosion of trust between the partners, where events beyond academic cooperation threaten the political goodwill to work closely together.

Recent disputes over Northern Ireland and the detention of EU citizens by UK immigration authorities have not been helpful.

It is not time to completely close the Brexit chapter, but the new phase offers the chance to rebuild and strengthen ties between universities on a much more secure basis than in recent years.


This article was first published by University World News on 15 July 2021.



“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Thomas Jorgensen

Thomas Jørgensen is Director of Policy Coordination and Foresight at the European University Association.


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