The common European academic landscape is under threat after Brexit

Possible domino effect could weaken Europe as an academic powerhouse, says Maastricht University’s Martin Paul, but collaboration can and must continue

June 24, 2016
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Now we know it. Brexit is a fact. It sadly shows what populism can do, not only in the UK.

I am not a betting man, but I had expected that the UK would narrowly vote in favor of remaining in the European Union. Many things will change in the long run, but what will be the effect on European academia? 

Opponents of Brexit have written in the past few weeks that it would mean the UK could no longer apply for European grants, such as those from the European Research Council and Horizon 2020. Actually, I do not expect that this will be a major issue. 

Take a look at Switzerland. It is not a member of the EU, but it does participate in the European funding programmes. Admittedly, in 2014 Switzerland did not receive any EU funds for a period of six months because a small majority of the Swiss voted in a referendum against the influx of migrants from EU countries. After a period of six months, though, the EU and Switzerland reached new agreements and things went back to the way they were. 

Furthermore, Switzerland participates only to a limited extent with the EU funding for science. Similar arrangements will also apply to the UK. But is that the end the world? No. 

A more serious consequence is that the Brexit will limit the mobility of researchers, educators and students. The UK will join the ranks of other countries such as Switzerland, the US or Russia. This also may not be a huge problem. 

What I am more concerned about is that the common European academic landscape is coming under threat. Up until now, it always felt that the EU was our “academic homeland”. It didn’t matter where you come from; it’s been a united Europe for our world. I predict that a referendum under British academics would have resulted in a big win for the anti-Brexit forces. But others have dominated the vote and I am concerned that it could be just the beginning: other countries may follow.  

Euroscepticism is running high in France, the Netherlands and increasingly even in Germany, and euro-critical politicians are already demanding similar referendums on Europe. Before we know it we could have Europe back as a continent with many smallish countries that do less and less together, reminding me of the German historical situation of Kleinstaaterei (territorial fragmentation).

Up until 1871, Germany was a patchwork quilt of small states and cities, each of which realised its own policy. It was only when these small states and cities united that Germany became an empire and the country could develop into a major political and economic power. 

Brexit and its possible domino effect could weaken Europe as a whole. Not only economically but also as an academic powerhouse. My view on this is a variant of Charles Darwin’s quote: it is not the strongest species that will survive, but the most collaborative.

With an exit from a common European academic ecosystem we could end up no longer building on each other’s academic strengths. If we simply all are thrown back into our own country’s politics, then we will find it more difficult to be visible. And that is not a good perspective. Because the real competition will be coming from India, China and other emerging countries where strong academic structures are developing with great speed.

This will have an impact on the international mobility of students and researchers. As an example, large international campuses are being developed in China with the intention of attracting European students in the future, which could lead to a potential reversal of student mobility and even a potential brain drain from Europe. 

So what is the consequence for academia of all this? Keep calm, collaborate and try to ignore the borders. That is my solution.

This is not a new concept. For decades Europe has built scientific structures that have successfully worked with a whole range of countries. Take, for example, Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, on the border of Switzerland (remember their position?) and France. There, thousands of researchers from more than 80 countries peacefully work together.

A Dutch researcher once playfully suggested that Cern would definitely qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize. I’d say that’s not such a silly idea. Perhaps as a response to Brexit, researchers and students could strengthen their collaborations and demonstrate that we achieve far more together than we could achieve individually. And we need to form strong university networks of like-minded institutions.

My own university recently co-founded YERUN, a network of young European research universities that have been brought together as partners, based on the results of THE’s ranking of universities under 50 years old. And we are a member of WUN, a global network of research universities, with several UK partners. These networks have their own governance and can work together as a coalition of the willing, keeping collaboration and exchange alive even in times of increased nationalistic tendencies.

In the case of the UK, let’s not panic. It is not a ship that is lifting its anchors and sailing away.

The British Isles will remain there, a few kilometres from the coast of France, and whatever the British eurocritics say, Europe and the UK will continue to have to deal with each other. Yes, with Brexit, some bridges to Europe have been torn down, but it is our task as universities to build new ones. 

Martin Paul is president of Maastricht University.

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Reader's comments (3)

Brexit makes sense to UK universities. Brexit has been about the economy, and some UK universities set their priorities thinking only about the money. Outside the EU, EU students will have to pay fees in Scotland and presumably the same fees as non-EU students. This will mean more money. Good news for Scottish universities like Edinburgh!
Needless to say, I utterly reject JR's preceding comment - but as a UK academic who has built much of his career around the wonder-world that is collaborative EU projects (first under FP, now H2020), I would say that, wouldn't I? In contrast, I found some crumbs of comfort in Martin Paul's commentary. I hope he is right that exclusion of the UK from H2020 and ERC will not be a major issue. It may well be true that, some years hence, the UK subscribes to these mechanisms from outside, as Switzerland and Norway do. But the problem I have is that, until the UK government gets round to that (and it will be very far down a long list of other pressing problems they will have to sort first) I have overnight become a Jonah figure for my European collaborators: until the future is clear, they dare not include me in their consortia. Even if the UK does eventually re-subscribe, I fear that understandable (if unadmirable) vindictive instincts will weigh heavily against any consortia led by Brits, or prominently including Brits, for years to come. As a serial FP-project Coordinator, this feels like an amputation of a large part of my research career.
Needless to say, I utterly reject Paul Younger's preceding comment. Some or many UK universities depend on recruitment. In Scotland, non-EU recruitment. When Edinburgh, for instance, claims that 40% of its students are non-British, what sounds like a toast to cultural diversity is nothing but a nod to non-EU fees coming in. This money-driven obsession has brought academic quality down in some subjects. The tragedy of UK universities is not that they will be outside UK, the tragedy is that, unlike German and other EU universities, they don't have the government's financial support. The major issue for UK universities is not leaving the EU, the issue is the money-driven culture that has prostituted academic excellence.

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