The time has come for a Brexit reality check

Anne van Wageningen, master coordinator, department of European studies, University of Amsterdam

September 13, 2016
Person walking in rain carrying Union Jack umbrella
Source: Alamy

For universities, Brexit is just another incident that they will easily overcome. And it will not be the last one that they will have to confront in the coming 900 years, to judge by the 900 years that have passed since the first university opened its doors in Bologna.

The University of Oxford takes pride in the fact that its first foreign student enrolled some time around 1190. This illustrates a long-standing tradition of academic cooperation throughout Europe. Nevertheless, Brexit will most certainly have implications for European cooperation.

Getting back to work after the summer holiday period, the enormous task of disentangling the UK from the European Union will have to be faced – not only by politicians, but by everyone involved in EU-UK cooperation, including those within the field of higher education.

What’s obvious is that a long road lies ahead. It is absolutely clear that European integration has been so well developed that an eventual EU-UK split will seem more like trying to untangle a spider’s web than performing a straightforward surgical cut.

For some aspects of higher education, however, the implications could be less complex. Important issues concerning academic cooperation, such as the European Credit Transfer System, the BA-MA-PhD division and quality assurance, have never been regulated in EU treaties. This cooperation stems from the Bologna Process, which is supported by more than 45 states, including the UK and all the other EU member states. So we will still cooperate on an equal footing, as we have done for centuries.

For institutional student and staff exchange, however, things are more complicated. This relates to the EU’s Erasmus programme, which will be subject to negotiations. Funding from the Horizon 2020 research programme will also be amended. UK universities cooperate substantially within these programmes, and it is difficult to predict whether UK universities will remain programme leaders – as they now often are.

Nevertheless, Norway and Turkey are both programme countries – a status that entitles them to the same advantages as member states, and thereby makes them part of research consortia. The UK should, I believe, aim for this status.

Individual student and staff exchange will be trickier. This process was subject to the rules on the internal market and European citizenship. The European citizenship rules will cease to be applicable, no matter what the outcome. The extent to which internal market rules will still apply is under negotiation.

Key to the EU referendum’s result were feelings about immigration. Individual student and staff exchange will form part of the larger immigration debate. The outcome of this issue is therefore very uncertain. For students it could mean more expensive enrolment fees; for staff, more administrative burdens.

The holidays are over; the dust is settling. My British colleagues were devastated. As were all of us. Rejection never feels good. But now the time has come for a reality check.

Most importantly, the academic world has, from its beginning, focused on cooperation and the free flow of ideas and knowledge. This will remain the case, with or without Brexit.

Two sessions, “Brexit: The future of Europe and the UK” and “Life after #Brexit: UK-EU partnerships (research, student and staff mobility)”, will take place at EAIE 2016 on Wednesday 14 and Thursday 15 September, respectively.

The 28th annual conference of the European Association for International Education takes place in Liverpool from 13 to 16 September. The conference, which focuses on internationalisation and cooperation between European universities, will include sessions on issues affecting institutions across the continent, including the refugee crisis, Brexit and universities’ use of social media


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