Scepticism over European hunger for UK collaboration post-Brexit

‘Cloud cuckoo land’ to think British-based academics will be partners of choice after exit from European Union, conference hears

April 4, 2019

UK university leaders are in “cloud cuckoo land” if they think their institutions will still be the collaborators of choice for European researchers post-Brexit, a conference has heard.

Ludovic Highman, who interviewed staff in 12 British universities as part of a research project focusing on the impact of Brexit, said that “what came across a lot was a thinly veiled arrogance that we are the best universities in Europe for research, so obviously European partners will still want to work with us”.

“I think that if you believe that, you live in cloud cuckoo land because I do not think there is any research that cannot be conducted in most European universities,” Dr Highman told the annual conference of the Centre for Global Higher Education.

“They can do exactly what we are doing and they do not need us to do it, and I think that is something that has only in the last few months maybe started to be understood here, and that’s a great shame.”

The debate came amid concern that delays in striking a Brexit agreement may leave the UK outside the European Union’s multibillion-euro research programme Horizon Europe when it starts in 2021, and that a no-deal exit could see British researchers excluded for the duration.

Dr Highman, who was until recently a senior research associate at CGHE, said that the presumption that collaboration with countries in Commonwealth could replace ties facilitated by the EU was a “big misunderstanding of what both organisations represent”.

The UK is considering launching its own research fund open to academics from around the world as an alternative to the highly prestigious European Research Council, and Commonwealth members are seen as prime potential participants.

But while there was a “feeling that in the Commonwealth we have so many friends”, this was “not…true”, Dr Highman said.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, also expressed concern about “patronising” British attitudes when it comes to partnerships with universities abroad.

“We think it is the right state of affairs that 10 times as many students from other countries come and study in the UK as we send out to study in other countries but when ministers go to India the Indians want a partnership, they want true partnerships and research. They want British students present in India too,” Mr Hillman said.

He added: “It has got to be about partnerships. It has got to be about give and take and not maybe the way that some of these relationships have worked in the dim and distant past.”

CGHE research focusing on the impact of Brexit on the emotions of staff in 12 UK universities was also presented at the conference. Of 127 interviewees, all but five expressed fears about the consequences of Brexit.

Eighty-three per cent of interviewees expressed feelings of uncertainty, confusion or paralysis, while 56 per cent said they felt a sense of loss. However, 54 per cent also expressed optimism or hope, and 44 per cent expressed a determination to act or find a way through.

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