Brexit: a chance for universities to leave their ivory towers behind

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This op-ed by Professor Dr Martin Paul, vice-chair of the Worldwide Universities Network, originally appeared in Times Higher Education on 28 March 2017


As the UK’s prime minister, Theresa May, prepares to trigger Article 50, there is no escaping the fact that Britain is leaving the European Union, and higher education is going to have to face up to what that means. It doesn’t matter what one calls it – whether it’s a hard Brexit, a soft, friendly and open one, a bold and beautiful one, a big, bad and ugly one – we are all going to have to adjust to the change.

I strongly believe that we as universities in both the UK and elsewhere in Europe (for me, the Netherlands) must take an active role in helping to manage the Brexit process. As a community of scholars, providers of educational excellence and experience, a collective of higher education institutions operating in the international context, we have the expertise to support policymakers towards a positive outcome. I am confident that we can find a way to make this work by influencing the negotiations to reap the benefits and find opportunities for all.

It was clear during the recent Worldwide Universities Network Brexit workshop in Brussels that there are many insecurities about the future especially with regard to research funding, publications and mobility of students and staff. There are fears that the academic community will retreat into “knowledge silos”, damaging existing, productive and robust collaboration frameworks. All this goes against the foundations of what the EU and, collectively, the member states have worked so hard to achieve.

Highlights from the Worldwide Universities Network Brexit workshop in Brussels (VIDEO)

These risks and fears are real, and we should do everything in our power, using our knowledge and our expertise, our partnerships and our networks, to ensure the best possible terms for all parties affected by Brexit. While I cannot deny that there will be legal and financial implications that might have a big and bold impact, particularly for the UK, I still believe that the fundamental values, history and culture of Europe, which we all enjoy, can withstand Brexit.

Ultimately, we should demand that representatives from the higher education field sit at the negotiation table or at least provide expert input from our many institutions. We have the knowledge, we have the expertise and collectively we are more than willing to share. We are driven because this is about our future and the need to protect the “citizen rights” of the members of our academic communities, which traditionally, for all the right reasons, have ignored borders.

A key issue for students, academics and institutions is international mobility. We need to encourage our governments to protect students’ rights and to ensure that they can continue to benefit from studying abroad. At my university, for example, we currently see a growing interest from UK students who want to study here in the heart of Europe, and we, of course, want to continue to welcome them and not make it difficult for them to study at Maastricht University. The same certainly applies for our own students who want to go the UK – we want it to be a seamless process for them.

This is not only about increasing the bandwidth of students’ knowledge and experience, but also about their employment prospects on the international labour market. We need to secure a Europe that continues to support freedom of movement and enhances study and work opportunities abroad, with a particular focus on UK-EU relations. We must not penalise students when it comes to fees or staff members who want to work either in the UK or here in the EU. This point should be top of mind for the governments in negotiating the terms of Brexit.

I also believe that we can find a way to ensure continued collaboration on research funding. This will be essential, as many attending the WUN workshop felt that it was neither fair nor realistic for UK institutions to expect arrangements for EU research funding to remain the same for them after Brexit. The issues on future research funding are good examples of how you can’t have it all, if you are Britain, post-Brexit; but that’s not to say that we cannot find a fair and realistic way to ensure prosperous collaboration going forward.

While Brexit brings change, a new situation, adapted terms, altered agreements and different relations, it also brings opportunity. It is an opportunity to work even more closely together – for universities, higher education and research institutions to connect even more to the business world, to the political arena and to the media.

Every crisis is an opportunity. Brexit is, therefore, the ultimate opportunity for universities to connect and engage with society. Brexit can help to break down the “ivory tower” walls between academia and society, and I firmly believe that this is something that can benefit us all in the long run.

Professor Dr Martin Paul is president of Maastricht University and vice-chair of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN).