First published in Research Europe, 23.02.17

Universities in the UK are rushing to sign Erasmus+ deals to secure access to Europe for their students and academics after Brexit, Research Europe has learned.

Universities in Germany and Denmark have said that they are witnessing an increase in UK demand for partnerships under the EU’s flagship exchange programme, including deals on researcher exchange. They hope that agreements signed before Brexit will survive even if the UK pulls out of EU programmes.

EU destinations remain attractive for British students and researchers, said Tobias Hochscherf, a vice-dean at Kiel University of Applied Sciences in Germany, which has received more offers for Erasmus+ deals since the Brexit referendum in June 2016.

“The EU as a community of values has generally much in common with academia: both are built upon debate and partnership,” he said. “But what is irritating at the moment, for both students and staff, is the state of uncertainty.”

The UK risks losing significant clout and funding if it is forced to withdraw from Erasmus+. Last year was the country’s most successful year in funding terms, with €126 million awarded to UK universities compared with €118m in 2015. According to the British Council, an education and culture body, more than 40,000 people from the UK went to Europe to study or do research under Erasmus+ in the 2015-16 academic year.

A source from the British Council, which hosts the UK National Agency for Erasmus+, said that the programme had helped UK universities “broaden their connections and increase their competitiveness”. The council said that it was aware of a rush by British institutions to get agreements signed, but added that it could not speculate on future scenarios.

The European Commission echoed that it was too early to tell what was going to happen to UK participation. However, a spokesman for Erasmus+ said that the option of a Norway or Switzerland-style deal—where the country pays into the programme in return for access—could be tricky, because UK prime minister Theresa May has said she opposes “huge payments” to the EU after Brexit.

Meanwhile, the general situation remains a concern for the UK’s EU partners. Hochscherf said that he has stopped looking for joint EU research bids with partners in the UK, at least for now.

“What I fear is that higher education and research will be used as a bargaining chip in the negotiations between Westminster and Brussels,” he said.

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