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Gyimah sparks anger with ‘rise up’ remark

Minister tells universities to do more to meet Brexit challenge

Researchers have hit back at science minister Sam Gyimah after he criticised universities for not having “risen up to the challenge” of replacing European research opportunities imperilled by Brexit.

Speaking to journalists at the annual conference of the vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK on 5 September, the science minister said that universities were overly focused on how to reproduce their relationships with the European Union, particularly in researcher mobility and funding.

“Our challenge is not just how do we replicate what we had in the EU; our challenge is how we go beyond that and succeed, and I think on that debate universities have not risen up to the challenge,” he said.

The minister’s words triggered a storm of largely negative reactions from academics.

“Gyimah obviously wants us to plan ahead but it is very difficult for us to do so because we don’t know what Brexit is going to look like,” said Lee Cronin, a chemist at the University of Glasgow. “And given the current makeup of our funding, basically we have no idea where we can go to fill that shortfall.”

He added: “The government has basically created a massive problem for universities and they are saying that we have to solve their problem and I don’t understand what that looks like.”

Iain MacInnes, a researcher in Scottish history at the University of the Highlands and Islands, said Gyimah’s comments suggested that the government was outsourcing to universities the task of finding alternative sources for research funding and collaborations.

“Saying that universities are not trying hard enough rather ignores the complexity and the difficulty of setting up those collaborative efforts,” he said. “Even if universities were to do that and refocus their research efforts on global universities as opposed to European ones, that would take a good number of years, and there wouldn’t be any short-term return.”

The minister tried to provide some reassurance at a hearing of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on 12 September. There he said that the government would look at ways of replacing funding for excellence-based research from the prestigious European Research Council if it failed to negotiate future access to this. It is hoping to do this through an agreement to participate in the EU’s forthcoming €100-billion (£89bn) Horizon Europe funding scheme, which will also fund the ERC. Without such an agreement, the roughly €70 million a year that currently flows from the ERC to the UK would be cut off.

Gyimah repeated the government position that it wanted a deal to join in Horizon Europe, and admitted that ERC funding would be at risk if it did not secure one. “We would want to be able to continue that kind of research activity which is based on excellence,” he said. “We would have to look at how we can replicate some of those research schemes.”

David Amabilino, a sustainable chemistry researcher at the University of Nottingham, said that replacing EU funding for excellent research would require “a huge influx of government money”.

“In general, universities are pretty resourceful, and if there were a pot of gold waiting to be claimed to support their researchers, wherever it was, they would do it. To believe that EU funding can be ‘replaced’ you must be in cloud-cuckoo-land.”

Academics were further aggravated by Gyimah’s criticism of the quality of some university courses in response to an OECD report on global education. “Our universities need to call time on low-quality threadbare degrees that are not delivering real opportunity for students,” he tweeted on 12 September.

Gyimah also labelled degree courses “threadbare” at the UUK conference on 5 September. “If the perception grows that universities are offering threadbare courses, or prioritising getting bums on seats over quality, the credibility of the higher-education sector as a whole will suffer,” he told delegates.

The minister declined a request for comment.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight