Research Excellence Summit: You can’t escape Brexit

Wherever you are, populism and its effect on universities is never far from conversation, finds Chris Parr

July 4, 2017
Brexit negotiations sign

You can't get away from Brexit. Even at a research excellence summit in Taiwan, it keeps rearing its head. As does Donald Trump.

It might be because I'm English – or maybe the whole world is obsessed – but populism seems to be at the front of the queue when it comes to topics people want to discuss. In the lift: what does Brexit mean for UK research funding? At dinner: what does Brexit mean for tuition fees? At the bar: what does Brexit mean for international recruitment?

I’m at the THE Research Excellence Summit, hosted in partnership with China Medical University in Taichung, and the surge of populism has also made its way from informal chats into the presentations.

“Australia basked in the post-Brexit and post-Trump moments,” University of Sydney deputy vice-chancellor (research), Duncan Ivison, told delegates – describing them as “moments when people looked for alternatives”, with students and staff looking for English-speaking universities suddenly less enamoured by the UK and US.

There was laughter from the audience when it was pointed out that on the day the US election result was announced, there was a 17-fold increase in the number of people looking for jobs in Canada – an alternative destination.

That basking, though, was short-lived, Professor Ivison explained. In April, the Australian government – in a populist move of its own – announced a crackdown that would see some academic jobs become ineligible for visas. The logic? According to prime minister Malcolm Turnbull (sounding suspiciously like Trump), it was “to put Australians and Australian jobs first”.

“Just at the moment when we should have been capitalising,” Professor Ivison told the summit, the government had opted to send out a negative, unwelcoming message.

The story in Australia, however, has a happier ending (if you're a university leader, at least). Universities “had to work ferociously“ in an attempt to overturn the changes, Professor Ivison explained. But they – along with other protestors – were successful. Last week, ministers announced that lecturers and other university staff would now be eligible for four-year visas, with a pathway to permanent residency. 

"Universities are not immune to the global rise of populism," Professor Ivison said. “We cannot be complacent.”

Later in the day, another speaker, Shin Sung-chul – president of the Korea Institute of Advanced Technology – told delegates: “If you are not happy with the [research] funding situation in your country, come to Korea.”

He was reacting to a discussion about the challenges of running a university in Taiwan – where government funding has not increased sufficiently in recent years, and where a strong belief that university attendance should be affordable has led to government restrictions on how much universities can charge for tuition.

However, while his remarks addressed Taiwan, they were felt acutely by attendees with US and UK connections. They have much in common, after all, with the words of both French president Emmanuel Macron and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, both of whom are keen to attract top university staff.

Macron has spoken openly – and often – about his interest in attracting researchers and scientists to France. He senses an opportunity, post-Brexit and Trump, to establish France as an international research hub. He even set up a website to lure US researchers disaffected by the country’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate agreement to France, and has said that unhappy post-Brexit British scholars should cross the Channel too.

Canada, meanwhile, has reiterated its commitment to climate change research, relaxed immigration processes for visiting academics, and made it easier for international students to become citizens.

We all know that higher education is an international business. But listening to speakers from across the world at a conference attended by delegates from universities in Europe, North America, and across the Asia-Pacific region, the challenge of recruiting the “best” scholars is crystal clear.

What is also clear is that when some countries send out the kinds of messages that don’t appeal to academics, there will always be another country waiting to try to poach them.

 Chris Parr is digital and communities editor of Times Higher Education.

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