Plans to move some of the UK’s top universities to a little-known North Sea island to circumvent post-Brexit restrictions on accessing European research funding have faced a mixed reception from academics.
With the UK’s involvement in Horizon Europe still undecided thanks to deadlock in Westminster over the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, it has emerged that several leading universities are in advanced talks about relocation plans that would enable them to remain part of the EU’s €100 billion (£85 billion) research framework.
While Universities UK was believed to favour a move to the French Riviera, most institutions are said to back the “Norway-plus-plus option”, which would see leading institutions set up shop on the remote Norwegian island of Olegunnarsøya, which is exactly midway between Bergen and Newcastle in the North Sea’s Dogger area.
Under the top-secret plan revealed today by Times Higher Education, several Russell Group universities would move research laboratories to the storm-blasted island and join forces in a bid to take on the mighty Crick Institute in London, which itself may also move to the rocky outpost.
Several Oxbridge colleges have also indicated that they are willing to move their historic landmarks – including King’s College Chapel and the Bridge of Sighs – to the island to help their dons feel more at home in the desolate environment.
Thousands of students could also be based on the island, with the opportunities for whale watching and kite surfing believed to be a strong draw for many would-be undergraduates.
It is not yet known whether the handful of top universities involved in the deal would remain separate or merge to form a new UK “super-university” – but it is understood that Theresa May has expressed an interest in becoming its first vice-chancellor after leaving Downing Street.
“Adapting to the changing political and economic landscape has always been crucial for the success of UK universities, so this move is really nothing out of the ordinary for UK higher education,” explained Håvin Olaf, the billionaire Norwegian financier who is masterminding the project, which he hopes will increase UK-Norway research collaboration.
“Norway gives a Christmas tree to London each year, so donating an island to start this kind of bilateral project is many ways the logical step for the UK and our country,” he said.
Some academics have, however, reacted angrily to the idea of working in the middle of the North Sea, despite a proposed high-speed underwater commuter shuttle built by Elon Musk meaning they could live on the British mainland or next to a Norwegian fjord.
“Moving to the island certainly has some appeal given the importance of European Research Council funding, but I would need a cast-iron guarantee that the local seal community and famously friendly puffin colonies would not be put at risk by the arrival of several thousand academics and PhD students,” said Avril Foole, senior lecturer in kinesiology at Manchester Medway University.