An association of more than 20 universities has criticised the government’s “marked lack of clarity” on plans for post-Brexit regional investment.
After the UK leaves the European Union (EU), it will no longer receive billions of euros from the bloc’s structural and investment funds. Despite the impending departure, there remains “surprisingly little detail” from government on its replacement proposals, a report from MillionPlus has claimed.
The association representing 21 post-1992 universities has published a report outlining its recommendations to government for a new UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF).
Referring to the end of the Brexit transition phase in December 2020, the report said: “Everything changes on 1 January 2021”, adding it “marks the end of the country’s participation in a series of programmes that collectively invested nearly €16.5bn into the UK since 2014.”
“Any replacement funding stream not planned, constructed and implemented with sufficient thought and insight could have grave consequences for UK communities and regions,” the report warned.
As EU funds are awarded to projects on the principle of co-funding, a combined sum of €26.7bn has been ploughed into UK-based schemes between 2014–2020, the report summarised.
Professor Rama Thirunamachandran, chair of MillionPlus and vice-chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University, said modern universities had used £100m of European investment since 2014 and had helped level up innovation and prosperity in every corner of the UK.
“The government is right to view re-balancing wealth and investment across the whole country as vital in the coming years and the Shared Prosperity Fund, with the support of modern universities, can be an engine for doing so.
“The success of EU funds in infrastructure development and investment in communities over recent decades means there is strong record to build on, but a balancing act will need to be found so that what worked under the old funding system is not lost under its replacement,” Prof Thirunamachandran said.
He continued: “Clarity is much needed and is sought by those communities that have benefited from previous investment, anxious to ensure that there is no limbo period between the end of European funded projects and the commencement of those under the Shared Prosperity Fund.
“As European projects will begin to shut next year, the Shared Prosperity Fund must commence its investments no later than spring 2021.”
You might also like: Prof Thirunamachandran: Will the next decade be the soaring ’20s for HE?
The report outlines the association’s fears future government funds will be calculated using the last round of EU budgets. In the upcoming seven-year allocation, the UK was expected to have qualified for larger funds, according to analysis from the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions (CPMR). Between 2014–2020, the UK received €10.3bn from European Regional Development Funds (ERDF), but could have expected to receive €13bn between 2020–2027, the CPMR estimated.
“There is concern both inside and outside Westminster that if funding is to be replicated, it will be on the basis of the 2014 allocations, effectively meaning a loss of income to some of the places most in need of investment,” the report summarised. It added it was important the UKSPF maintain the same measures of disparity as the ERDF to ensure the poorest regions see cash flows maintained.
The 11-page report argued the break from the EU offered government officials the chance to reconsider measures of deprivation. Disadvantaged areas of otherwise affluent regions of the country are disadvantaged by the regional measures for funding, MillionPlus said, meaning pockets of deprivation in prosperous regions like the south-east of England could persist if funds are not allocated on a more granular level.
It said new measures were needed to ensure cash did not “concrete unevenly within regions”.
The report also appealed for funds to be allocated on a long-term basis and outside the five-year general election cycle, to “avoid the pitfalls of electioneering”.
In the report, MillionPlus called for a Whitehall shake-up, claiming “not all the bureaucratic pressures related to European funding emanate from Brussels, and if the government is to achieve its aim of creating a more streamlined UKSPF, it may also be forced to look for change within”.
Under the association’s proposals, Treasury officials may not be left in “complete control” of UKSPF, as the report’s authors advocate more devolved spending controls and less red tape.
Models for success
The report said modern university had benefited from the flow of EU funds in the 1990s, such as the University of Highlands and Islands (UHI).
“The idea of a university spanning such a rural and complex geography would to many have seemed farfetched,” the report recounts, but now the UHI was now a “pillar of the regional economy” and a “rare dual-sector institution” offering both further and higher education. In the last Research Excellence Framework, 69% of research at the institution was deemed world-leading or internationally excellent, further evidence of the importance of modern universities, the report added.