Brexit: KU Leuven rector pitches UK-Europe ‘associations’

New partnerships could help UK universities retain research links and EU funding, says Rik Torfs

January 5, 2017
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Team Research: the KU Leuven rector said that a new association would still be ‘a sign of true European attitude’

Leading British universities could join with European counterparts to establish new “associations” on the Continent that would help them remain open to Europe after Brexit, according to the rector of KU Leuven.

Rik Torfs told Times Higher Education that the Belgian institution would be willing to be involved in new multi-partner entities, based within the European Union, that could help UK-based researchers maintain collaborations with partners and continue to access EU funding.

There is still no certainty over whether the UK government will seek to ensure that the nation remains part of the EU’s research programmes after Brexit as an associated country.

The UK has been warned that an exit from EU research could deter leading researchers, leaving the nation facing a brain drain to Germany, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland.

Researchers must spend a minimum of 50 per cent of their time in an EU member state or associated country to be eligible for the EU’s European Research Council grants, the highly prestigious awards sometimes described as the “Champions League of research” that benefited the UK’s Nobel prizewinning graphene researchers at the University of Manchester.

Professor Torfs, a former member of Belgium’s senate and a Flemish television personality, heads an institution that, at 40th in the THE World University Rankings, is continental Europe’s fifth highest-placed university.

KU Leuven is a member of the League of European Research Universities, alongside UK members the University of Cambridge, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Oxford, plus Imperial College London and University College London.

Professor Torfs suggested that there was scope to consider “creating an association with one or more British universities and one or more European continental universities”.

He added: “You could imagine [an] association of certain excellent UK and continental universities, with legal personality, somewhere in Brussels…could also be Leuven or wherever, but a place close to the headquarters of the European Union in Brussels for practical reasons.”

He said that such new establishments could be “a centre for discussing research and for participating in all kinds of [research] programmes and [for going] in search of funding”.

The process of setting up these new establishments could start before waiting for the completion of Brexit, Professor Torfs argued.

He said that even if such an organisation started as “an empty shell”, it would still be “a sign of true European attitude and the idea that education remains a matter where division is leading nowhere. You have the symbolic value on the one hand and on the other you also have the possible operational aspect.”

Some UK vice-chancellors are already considering setting up European campuses after the vote to leave the EU, with a view to offsetting potential declines in EU student recruitment, retaining research collaborations and ensuring continued access to EU research funding, THE has reported.

Professor Torfs suggested that while this would require “a lot of energy and may be hazardous”, a multi-partner “association” with continental universities “could be a calmer and quieter way to achieve something comparable”.

While he envisaged that such European collaborations would be focused on research, he added that recruitment of continental European students is “of course an issue” for UK universities post-Brexit and could be “an element that will play a part” in the partnerships.

Professor Torfs warned that a UK exit from the EU research system would harm universities across the Continent, not just in the UK. “As a narrow-minded person, you could say [that Brexit means] ‘more money for us’. But it is of course bad for the reputation of European research,” he said.

“Basic research is the key for economic success in the future. So if you abandon that, or if you weaken it, then maybe the consequences will not always be visible economically in three or four years but certainly in 10 years,” he added.

Also, while the UK government might be able to compensate financially for the loss of EU research funding, there was a “second level” to collaborations with the Continent, “the level of long-existing contacts, collaborations, a kind of closeness intellectually speaking and scientifically speaking that should not be given up”, Professor Torfs said.

KU Leuven is handily located from the perspective of potential UK collaborations, being close to an airport and to Brussels with its Eurostar link to London.

“We are open for everything – we don’t want to force people or put pressure [on them], but we are open for collaboration and, of course, given the fact that we are well situated…we are a good partner, [and also] a very well-ranked university,” said Professor Torfs.

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