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Can You Spell KTH Without EU?

Matteo Aquila -

Haouye Liu -

Yes, you can. But hear me out. It is hard to quantify how a political institution affects you directly. It is even harder if you grow up without knowing life outside of it. In this article, a European student asks the impossible question: How would higher education change in a world after the EU? If polls are to be trusted, we may find out very soon.

If you are a politics nerd, skip to the next paragraph. If you need an introduction to European Union shenanigans instead, keep reading. No shame in that, we feel you. European institutions are numerous and confusing, even as an EU citizen. The usual examples are the European Council, the Council of Europe, and the Council of the European Union. They are all distinct entities that do very different activities. Sounds like a joke, right? Let’s ignore that for now because the European Parliament is the major institution you must look out for in 2024. The Parliament is one of the two legislative houses in the EU. It has the last word on any law and budget decision. It keeps tabs on the European Commission, the institution with executive power (the closest thing the European Union has to a government cabinet). And it just so happens that EU Parliament Elections are right around the corner: mark down on your calendar the 9th of June 2024.

European Parliament elections may not sound like a big thing, but if you study, work, or live in an EU country now and for the foreseeable future, their result will haunt you whether you like it or not. At least that’s what the EU wants you to think: this year, it is investing heavily in pushing for higher young voters turnout after witnessing generalised low interest in elections worldwide. This year’s elections will also be special because they will most likely end with the biggest political twist since the Parliament’s inception. Polls suggest that the next majority will be veering towards far-right parties for the first time, ending an uninterrupted streak of generally centrist coalitions. Those right-wing, populist parties are mostly euro-sceptical and advocate for a weaker EU in favour of leaving more (if not all) decisional and financial power to national governments. That would be a complete 180° turn from the current situation.

How does this affect us as students in an EU country? To answer this question, we need to answer a bigger one first: how has the EU ever affected us and our university? What does KTH get from a strong Union? Would a weaker one condition it? We’ve identified three main fields of influence.

Grants and funding

The EU plans its spending over seven-year budget plans, getting money from member states and redistributing it based on common goals set by the Commission. The budget for research and innovation valid from 2021 to 2027 is called “Horizon Europe” and is almost 100 billion euros (1.1 trillion Swedish kronor – all conversions in this article valid as of writing), which is 7% of European expenditures. We still don’t know exactly how much will come to Sweden from this record-setting amount. Funds are applied for and approved on a periodical basis. As of January 2024, according to public statistics, Sweden got approval for a net contribution of 1,2 billion euros (13.5 billion kronor). In the past three years, KTH has received funding for about 67 million euros (753 million kronor). When compared with other Swedish universities, KTH holds third position for net contribution, behind Karolinska Institutet (83M€) and Lunds Universitet (110M€), and second for number of participations in grants requests (behind LU). During the previous budget, “Horizon 2020”, KTH received almost 180 million euros (2 billion kronor) for 360 participations. Proportions with other universities stayed quite the same.

According to the KTH Annual Report for 2022, the latest available, the EU was the largest international source of research funding during that year. Our university received about 38 million euros (427 million kronor) for 80 projects of diverse natures, including researcher mobility and postdoc fellowships. Besides “Horizon Europe”, KTH has also been awarded funds for participation in other EU instruments, such as Euratom and the European Defence Fund. Altogether, funding from the EU formed 5,1% of total KTH income for 2022 and was the second largest revenue source for third-cycle level education.

The relative result was in line with that of 2021. However, percentages hide a less comforting truth: funding from the EU decreased in absolute numbers from 2021 to 2022, as did direct government grants. The sum of these two sources has fallen by 49% for education at the first and second levels, which suffered the hardest hit. This, among other factors, led to the general financial situation we all know about.

All in all, KTH has benefited from EU funding in constant increase until 2020 and those grants have been and still are vital for high-level research, for which the EU has been keeping a most relevant role as a revenue source.

Mobility of people

Most Europeans are familiar with the Erasmus+ programme, the EU framework that allows students to spend up to 12 months studying abroad. Countries and universities associated with the programme recognise each other’s courses and lectures so that students may progress in their academic journey without choosing between an abroad experience and finishing their degree in the expected time frame. Erasmus+ also grants funding for part of your expenses. And it isn’t just for regular study: there are specific grants for internships and sports exchanges. For the 2021-2027 period, Erasmus+ has a 26 billion euros (292 billion kronor) budget that nearly doubles the amount spent in Horizon 2020. In 2022 alone, Erasmus+ spent 4 billion euros, moving 1,2 million students around the EU and out of it. Sweden received almost 28 million euros (314 million kronor) for higher education programmes, welcoming 17341 EU students and sending 14575 Swedish students abroad. According to KTH, more than 30% of KTH graduates spend at least one semester abroad. The goal is to increase this number to 40%.

Statistics Sweden (SCB) data about the first and second cycle levels shows that during the academic period 2022/23, KTH welcomed 2210 foreign students. Half of them came as exchange students; around 70% of them through EU programmes. Conversely, 560 students from KTH used an exchange opportunity to study abroad. It is worth noting that around 55% of them exploited EU programmes, inverting a tendency to prefer bilateral programmes that had been shown since 2013. SCB suggests that the inversion came after the pandemic, as bilateral partnerships could have worse conditions than EU ones.

How is this all achieved? Apart from getting the money to pay scholarships to all those students, how did universities coordinate to make academic recognition a reality? The system was called the Bologna process after the Bologna Declaration 1999, which uniformed higher education registration methods in 29 EU countries. Participating countries are now 49, including many outside of the EU. The Bologna declaration introduced the 3+2+3, ECTS, and quality assurance systems that Sweden adopted in 2007. Part of the Bologna process is the creation of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), launched in 2010, which groups all participating countries and creates the bureaucratic paths that make Erasmus and similar projects possible.

Bureaucracy is truly at the heart of this all: frameworks and common systems created by the EU make mobility and collaborations possible without too much hassle for institutions and students. KTH is exploiting these advantages by being part of other projects inside EHEA that follow a similar philosophy, such as the European Universities Initiative and UNITE! These alliances aim at creating “strategic, agile and dynamic” links between top universities towards “a trans-European Campus”. If, to you, this sounds more strategic than just a tool to let students have fun travelling around, you might be on the right track. People are not the only things these bridges are built for.

Mobility of information

In the Internet age, we tend to think of information as the most mobile thing, unable to be trapped by borders. However, the kind of research in high-level technical universities is obviously not made just for fun. Just think of the recent COVID-19 vaccines and the disputes around transparent research. Universities and their countries treat research as a strategic competitive advantage in many fields for different reasons. States want military and industrial knowledge to power their economy and supremacy. Similarly, universities also need cutting-edge research to get the most funding from international and national partners. Alliances between institutions open new paths for sharing money, people, and crucial knowledge. All thanks to tight codification and bureaucracy that regulate relationships, exchanges, and ways of collaboration. This would not be possible without international frameworks, or at least would be much more costly and complicated.

KTH’s 2022 Report recognizes that KTH “is reliant on access to current research infrastructure to conduct cutting-edge courses and research” and acts on that by being part of several collaborative strategic research collaborations. As of 2022, KTH was coordinating Swedish participation in two projects at CERN, a party in three European research infrastructures; the accountable authority for national projects that received European funding, such as the Swedish e-Science Research Center (SeRC), engaged as the main partner in programs by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). EIT’s consortia promote international study courses and, in KTH’s words from their website, “enable a greater number of competitive applications for EU projects and increased funding for KTH.”

The scene has been set: KTH benefits massively from the presence of the EU and its unique ability to regulate international relationships and frameworks. This directly affects upper-level research and bachelor’s and master’s students. KTH has access to international opportunities not encompassed by EU jurisdiction, such as the Nordic Tech Five and collaboration programmes with American and Chinese universities. However, the contribution of EU projects is factual and should not be discounted.

We can now go back to the original question: what would KTH look like if the EU started to progressively lose the power and influence it has been gaining for the last 30 years? What practical repercussions would be expected for students? We can glimpse this hypothetical future by looking at what happened to universities in the United Kingdom after the so-called “Brexit” in 2016. Ignoring the consequences of political mismanagement, British universities lost around 800 million pounds (10 billion kronor) per year worth of grants just by leaving the EU, as estimated by a report for Universities UK. The UK got all the funding from Horizon 2020 as a previous full Union member, about 2 billion pounds (26 billion kronor) a year, but got locked out of Horizon Europe. The UK government stepped in to replace funding, but a source told newspaper “The Guardian” that it was more “life support” than a fruitful investment. Other EU programmes continued to give grants in bilateral partnerships but at around 2% of pre-Brexit sums. Under heavy pressure from the academic world, the UK has now managed to re-enter the Horizon programme from January of this year, at the cost of much worse economic conditions: “The Guardian” describes the newly introduced “underperformance clause” as “potentially financially disastrous”. Still, the fracture has not been completely closed: the UK will not re-enter the Euratom programme and has decided to focus on its research projects instead. Experts had warned of the hard consequences of Brexit on the academic world before the referendum; many of their previsions turned out to be true.

It is not like the EU is a complete academic paradise of free money and shared knowledge. As we briefly hinted, some EU financial contributions have been shrinking for a while already. Regarding people’s mobility, some have suggested that this freedom may risk leading to a “concentration of the minds” and “brain drain” from weaker countries (although, for now, Sweden seems to benefit from this effect.) Even the path toward total information mobility sometimes has deviations: the European Research Area (ERA) has been an ambition since 2000 but never succeeded in taking shape. This “common market” for research was met with reluctance by member states wanting to keep a scientific advantage over the others. In January 2024, a new impulse is being given to the project via new policy initiatives. This may lead to a more successful implementation in the coming years.

In conclusion, the European Union has shaped the way universities work nowadays. It keeps the system working efficiently through economic support and reduced bureaucracy. A transition towards a Union with limited financial independence would be a heavy hit on third-cycle research, as higher borders between countries also would. This is already happening due to the political climate and might get its definitive turning point after this summer’s elections.

There is a strong case for saying that a collaborative Europe made European universities the excellence they are. Will politics allow them to remain the bridge-builders they have always strived to be?

Publicerad: 2024-03-22

Ansvarig utgivare: Raquel Frescia
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