Higher Education & Research
The higher education sector has not been spared from economic developments that have seen national governments cut public spending across numerous areas. As a consequence, universities must secure new sources of funding to remain competitive. Indeed, research and innovation have been placed at the heart of the Europe 2020 strategy, with the Commission recently proposing to double EU research and innovation funding. A huge funding potential therefore does exist.
In order to activate European financial resources, university administrations need to follow strict guidelines and must become familiar with the legislative framework that governs European funds and instruments. If not applied correctly, there is a high risk that research projects are stalled or that grants must be fully reimbursed. Thus, there is an enormous pressure on actors within the higher education and research sector to be at the forefront of maintaining a strong funding base, while simultaneously avoiding falling into legal traps. With our seminars we aim to support practitioners in making legally informed decisions in areas that are particularly demanding.
In recent years, the amount of research contracts has grown rapidly. This is primarily due to the fact that research is becoming intensively complex, with universities depending on the know-how of industries for support in managing multiple research programmes. At the same time, the challenge this exerts on research administrations in research institutes and organisations is substantial. They have to manage more development contracts in less time – while ensuring that legal and quality standards are met. Another challenge is the inherent complexity of research contracts. Academic staff is not always well equipped to master the legal frameworks surrounding such contracts, especially as they involve multiple layers of different legal rules and concepts such as memoranda of understanding, confidentiality agreements and material transfer agreements. Moreover, administrative staff responsible for research contracts needs to be aware of the unlawful use of state aid, since there is a high risk that indirect state aid is granted to industry through collaboration in the research and development context, which is strictly forbidden by EU law. Last but not least, academic staff needs to develop contracts that are robust enough to avoid possible subsequent legal disputes.
International research cooperation is more important than ever. While public funding is decreasing, competition between universities is concurrently steadily increasing. To remain important players and provide a counterweight to the decline in national financial resources, higher education institutes can benefit substantially by building constructive alliances across the globe. Such collaborations can be valuable in manifold ways: universities gain valuable support pillars in particular research areas and expensive equipment for research purposes can be shared. The same applies to laboratories that can be divided between institutes. Crucially, being able to pool knowledge and resources opens up new possibilities for benefiting not only from European but also from international funding instruments. Rather than primarily relying on H2020 funding, alternative sources beyond such European instruments, including international funding streams are additional strong assets that universities should seek to extract. How can research institutes best facilitate effective international research cooperation? Essentially, they need to put forward a solid fundraising strategy that identifies credible income streams and likewise supports relevant academic staff to internationalise their research. Furthermore, setting up strategic partnerships and a network of strong cooperation will support higher education institutions in building and maintaining a strong reputation.
Alongside a stronger internationalisation strategy it is essential that robust communication science accompanies this process. Setting up an all-encompassing approach, however, is not an easy task. Firstly, research is often inherently complex and communicating scientific findings in ways that stimulate interest and enthusiasm for the topic is a challenge in itself. Secondly, researchers might be reluctant to engage with the media. In research communication it is key to recognise that there is no homogenous audience as such to be targeted, but rather a set of very diverse stakeholders whom universities must seek to reach. To more effectively reach their relevant target group, higher education institutions can numerically trace the impact of their science communication. Furthermore, research communication is no longer “nice to have”, but is a necessary condition for European funding. Indeed, when scientific institutes receive funding for a research project, the European Commission monitors whether the dissemination and exploitation activities of research results is done in line with existing regulations. Social media are indispensable tools for scientists, since they can spread research results and findings within seconds to the wider public. Yet, they have to know how to make use of the right social media channels.
As European funding is ever more crucial to higher education and research institutes, the mastery of European state aid for research, development and innovation is of utmost importance. In recent years, European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) have gained importance in the research sector. In the context of state aid regulations, however, a potential quagmire can ensue, that infringes upon EU rules. Additionally, as universities lean increasingly towards collaboration with industry, another problematic issue arises: cross-subsidisation. Research institutes are well advised to ensure that economic activities are clearly separated from non-economic activities, as otherwise university-business collaboration moves into a legal grey zone. Further difficult issues concern the handling of IP rights and licences as well as cluster management, as these take on particular relevance in state aid law compliance. If higher education institutions want to avoid a freeze or even reimbursement of funds, mastering the rules of the Union Framework for Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) is essential.
Financial accounting and auditing of European research funding remain one of the most challenging tasks for university administrations. Because the EU sets the bar very high for reporting obligations, when research institutes make use of EU grants there is a high risk that even minor flaws in financial accounting procedures lead to the freezing of funds. Furthermore, the auditing of European development funding is inherently complex, requiring the investment of significant resources into the proper management of Horizon 2020 or Marie Skłodowska-Curie programmes by university administrations. Indeed there are several pitfalls, such as the distinction between direct and indirect costs, the management and proper storage of large amounts of records or meeting the financial obligations that the EU attaches to each allowed grant. Therefore, it is crucial that universities put in place a functioning risk management system that enables the administration to detect errors at an early stage. Only if such a risk management is implemented properly can risks in financial accounting and the auditing of European development funding be tackled efficiently and flaws prevented at an early stage.
Seize the opportunity to exchange with colleagues from universities and research institutes all over the world and gain a strong understanding of how to work effectively with business. Our trainings and workshops are conducted by highly skilled experts eager to share their knowledge and experience with other practitioners in the field. Engaging a range of key issues, our seminars and workshops aim to disseminate first-class expertise and hands-on knowledge across borders and support universities in gaining legal certainty in this complex and crucial fields.