Why city partnerships are crucial for international research

Setting up institutional links with partners in key global cities is one way UCL is preparing for life after Brexit, says Florian Mussgnug

November 8, 2018
Rome skyline

Like many Europeans working in British universities, I first came to the UK as a student.

Professional success has been inseparable from my personal experience of modern Britain as a multicultural, meritocratic and open society. Until now, every British-European colleague I met has shared this experience. Our passion for teaching and research rests on a specifically British ethos of cosmopolitanism, pragmatism and open-mindedness, which we experienced at all stages of our education.

The free movement of researchers and ideas stands out as a foundational value that underpins our understanding of global research excellence and the prestige of our workplaces. Transparency and meritocracy, for us, have always meant internationalisation.

Very soon – on our current political course – it may become considerably more difficult for European researchers in the UK, and for our employers, to speak out in defence of these values. 

Brexit, and the possibility that Britain could leave the European Union without a withdrawal agreement, is not only a threat to our individual professional futures, it also undermines the accomplishments of the global university, a success story that has been widely associated with Britain’s leading institutions. 

From a European perspective, British optimism appears to have given way to an inward-looking, anxiety-ridden mood. And yet, the growing importance of UK higher education as a model for Europe cannot be overstated. 

Transnational collaboration is on the rise across the Continent, with countries such as Portugal and Italy making “internationalisation” a key criterion for national research funding. 

Researchers in every part of Europe teach and publish in English, and future academic leaders continue to look to the UK for training and work experience. For those of us who have benefited most from international collaboration and mobility, this is the time to stand up for the future of higher education, and to join the battle to keep British universities in Europe. 

The UCL cities partnerships programme provides an exciting opportunity to strengthen and shape internationally collaborative research and research-based learning in Europe, in response to these challenges. 

It is our aim to intensify cooperation with institutional partners in global cities, across disciplines, and to strengthen international research networks. I am honoured to be the first academic director of this important project, which will begin this year with Rome, followed by Paris in 2019.

Rome is a good place to start. More than 50 years after the Treaty of Rome, the Italian capital remains a powerful symbol of European unity.

But Rome has also come to be associated with new risks and challenges: the rise of populism; the future of a single currency in Europe; the need to rethink national sovereignty in an age of planetary connectedness; and the political causes and consequences of involuntary migration and forced immobility, especially in the Mediterranean region.

What draws us to Rome, beyond the city’s unrivalled wealth of historical sites and cultural artefacts, is the wish to respond actively and fully to these challenges, in line with UCL’s distinctive ethos of radicalism and innovative thinking. 

UCL boasts a sustained record of intensive research collaborations with high-ranking Roman partners, across numerous disciplines including archaeology, electronic engineering, political science and translation studies. 

My vision for the cities partnerships programme focuses on supporting and developing these collaborations. I have pursued this idea since 2017, in the context of a pilot scheme – the UCL Rome Regional Partnership Fund – which facilitated 11 collaborative projects with Sapienza University of Rome, the University of Rome III, LUISS Guido Carli University and the British School at Rome.

In total, this enabled the organisation of five international conferences, three symposia, six graduate training workshops, two week-long international doctoral summer schools, a piano concert and a photography exhibition. All events took place in Rome over the course of three months, between April and June 2018. 

More than 100 academic speakers were invited, including 37 UCL members of staff.

Educated in Britain, Italy and Germany, I am proud of UCL’s reputation as a global academic leader in continental Europe, and I applaud our commitment to international excellence.

In my new role, I will seek to consolidate UCL’s strategic presence in Italy. Colleagues across UCL have advanced exciting proposals for dual degrees, research fellowships, internships and fixed-term double appointments. I look forward to testing these ideas in the context of the UCL cities partnerships programme. 

Florian Mussgnug is academic director of the UCL Rome cities partnerships programme and an academic at UCL’s School of European Languages, Culture and Society.

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