Brexit: ‘fantastic’ UK researchers head for Canada

University of Waterloo recruits British academics ‘worried about future’ after referendum

March 16, 2017
Feridun Hamdullahpur
Feridun Hamdullahpur

The Brexit vote prompted several “fantastic” UK researchers “worried about the future of the country” to contact a single Canadian university to discuss moving there, according to the institution’s president.

Feridun Hamdullahpur, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo, spoke to Times Higher Education during the Asia Universities Summit at the University of Ulsan.

His comments will add to fears about the impact of the Brexit vote on the UK’s world standing in higher education.

“What we started noticing immediately after Brexit [was] not applications but direct contact by some top UK-based faculty wanting to come over,” said Dr Hamdullahpur.

“They were quite open about it: that it was not for their future but it was for their families’ future.”

He added that following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, “all of a sudden not just one, two or three but half a dozen really fantastic-level UK academics [were] wanting to come over” and Waterloo had “hired some of them”.

Dr Hamdullahpur said of those wanting to leave the UK: “They were in huge disagreement with the [Brexit] decision…They were worried about the future of the country.

“One person directly said that he didn’t want his children to grow up in that environment. He was quite politically charged…The day after the referendum he was calling me.”

Dr Hamdullahpur would not discuss the academics’ disciplines to protect their privacy, but he said that their specialisms were a “good match” for Waterloo’s strategic priorities.

Something similar has happened at Waterloo – located in Ontario, close to the American border – with US academics looking abroad since Donald Trump won the presidential race and, subsequently, took office.

After his victory, “all of a sudden the interest in faculty positions went quite high” from the US, said Dr Hamdullahpur. “We don’t usually get these [US academics] unless we go after them,” he added.

The theme of the Asia summit was building stronger industry links; Waterloo is known as an innovative institution strong in that area.

Dr Hamdullahpur said that he wanted to “establish an environment where we’re not going to industry or the private sector, they are there already [on campus] physically; their researchers, personnel”.

He cited quantum computing, artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing as key fields in this development.

While the US and the UK take stances increasingly hostile to immigration, the Waterloo president, who was born in Turkey and came to Canada to study for a PhD, is happy with Canada’s more liberal attitude to immigration.

However, he added: “We also need to consider the fit for society and make sure we’re bringing the right people…There’s got to be a match or alignment between Canadian values and principles, and people coming in.”

Dr Hamdullahpur said that of 1,400 tenure or tenure-track faculty at Waterloo, more than 400 were born outside Canada.

He continued of foreign faculty at Waterloo: “I have people who started working at the university who had never, ever seen snow. Now they say, ‘I don’t mind it.’ The temperature outside might be minus whatever, but the environment [at the university] is quite warm.”

He added: “If you fast-forward…20, 25 years, we will see a much more diversified world. And universities will have a played a very strong, important role in making that happen – which is a beautiful thing.”

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