Brexit or not, UK higher education must keep its global outlook

The case for international partnership goes beyond the EU debate, says Allan Goodman

March 4, 2016
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This week, Universities for Europe convened a panel on the impact of the Brexit vote on UK universities. As an outsider, I was invited to join in offering perspective from the US. Both Britain and America have historic elections this year, and our people have a chance to say “no” to the rhetoric extolling moats and walls.  

Staying in the European Union would surely make it easier for UK universities to continue to participate in the EU funding for scientific research, of which it consistently wins a lion’s share. UK university leaders joined together as a community to take a stand and to advocate for what they think will be best for higher education as the British public evaluates all the pros and cons of this complex decision.

Coming from the US, and from the Institute of International Education in particular, it is not really my role to “lobby” for a particular vote in the UK.

The international perspective that I would like to bring to this conversation is to say that the role of academic leaders should be to advocate for partnerships and collaboration worldwide, on every level, and should go beyond just the current conversation about the Brexit vote.

If the vote is for the UK to remain in the EU, it will be important to make sure that UK universities continue to be well represented in all the EU programmes for academic cooperation.

However, your voices would be even more critical if the vote were to go the other way; then it would be absolutely essential for the universities to speak out on why it is important to engage in collaborative research and consortia with universities in the EU as well as those in the US and around the world.

University leaders would need to work quickly to counter the possible signal that the UK might be pulling back from these good joint programmes. They would need to urge the UK government to continue to fund these ventures, redouble the efforts to support research and academic partnerships that UK universities are already engaged in, and look for ways to join in future schemes.

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What US educators would not want to see is the UK pulling back from international academic engagement. Those who have come out against staying in the EU have said that funding that the British government does not contribute to EU programmes could be used to fund other models of cooperation. If the vote were to go in that direction, it would be essential for university leaders to make sure that this happens, as it might be tempting to redirect those funds into other, more UK-focused initiatives.

The Global Innovation Initiative is a good example of how these international academic partnerships can be accomplished outside the EU: a joint programme of the US and UK governments, GII is bringing research teams from across the world together to tackle some of the biggest global challenges.

Grants are awarded to partnerships between teams of researchers at universities in the US, the UK and a designated other country (Brazil, China, India or Indonesia). The funds support science, technology, engineering and mathematics research in the following areas: energy, environment and climate change; urban development; agriculture, food security and water; and global health. The programme aims to raise the bar for international collaboration while developing a new cadre of globally savvy academics. It will support research into global challenges, strengthen cooperation between higher education institutions, and show the benefits of multilateral partnerships.

This month, the IIE will publish our newest book: Global Perspectives on Strategic International Partnerships: A Guide to Building Sustainable Academic Linkages. Produced together with the DAAD (the German Academic Exchange Service), and containing chapters by practitioners from around the world, this book pushes the global dialogue surrounding institutional partnerships to focus on what makes a partnership strategic, how long-term partnerships are managed, and what underlying tenets should guide those seeking to initiate or improve their strategic partnerships.

One chapter examines the model of the Consortium on Applied Research and Professional Education, a network of universities in the UK, the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, Spain and Hungary, that utilise their relationship to benefit their own institutions as well as contribute to local entrepreneurship and innovation efforts in the European context. We encourage the UK to continue to take part in this kind of collaboration, whether or not it remains in the EU.

I urge university leaders to continue this call for increased international cooperation at the university level. We all have a stake in honouring the spirit of the Europe of which the UK has been a part by being fierce advocates for the freedom to be able to freely share, travel and exchange. 

Allan Goodman is president and chief executive of the Institute of International Education.

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