As the UK haggles with the European Union over the terms of Brexit, European higher education is attempting to alleviate the uncertainty over academic relations with UK universities.
On Valentine’s Day, the ComUE (consortium of universities and establishments) of the University of Paris Seine sent its own gesture of affection to the UK by inviting British higher education institutions to be part of its Paris Seine International Campus, which opened its first building in 2016.
Under the proposals, the University of Paris Seine will reserve facilities and services for UK universities on the site with objectives including the development of high-level research and teaching activities. Universities have until 14 July to express their interest, with the names of the selected institutions to be revealed early next year.
The idea for the campus was devised in 2013, but Jean-Michel Blanquer, dean and president of Essec Business School, one of Paris Seine’s constituent institutions, said that the UK’s impending departure from the EU was part of the motivation for extending invitations to the nation.
“We knew that we wanted to attract international institutions, but the event of Brexit led us to [think] that it was good to start with the British,” he told Times Higher Education.
Anne-Sophie Barthez, president of the University of Paris Seine, said that the “proximity” between UK and French institutions, both geographically and ideologically, was vital in a post-Brexit academic world.
“There are a lot of questions about the possibility for universities to [continue to] benefit from European funds, about exchanges between students and researchers, so we want to invite universities from the UK to develop scientific partnerships with our institutions,” she told Times Higher Education.
She added that the political uncertainties hanging over global higher education meant that it was crucial to remain “open-minded” and to engage with academics “beyond borders”.
“It’s very important for UK universities, which have these traditions of exchanges and openness,” she added. “It’s also important for students and scholars, too. They tend to keep themselves to themselves; [but with] the consortium, the campus and the presence of UK universities, we will [hopefully] open the minds of people.”
Professor Blanquer said that it would be a “win-win” for UK universities concerned about losing European funding opportunities and international students. With 15 academic institutions, 35,000 students, 600 teachers and researchers, and academic excellence in numerous areas, the ComUE represents a natural spot for collaboration.
“Universities will be able to attract international students in a continental European environment and be able to build new programmes with us,” Professor Blanquer said. “From the research point of view, there are opportunities to have common projects and maybe in the future to get together some European funds."
The opportunities on offer extend beyond the exchange of scholars and students. It is hoped that UK institutions will work with the ComUE’s other institutions in areas including internationalising study programmes, joint degrees and research projects.
Professor Blanquer pointed out that there are physical advantages, too. Located 35 minutes from Paris in Cergy-Pontoise, UK universities will be given land for free to build their presence, which is “quite rare in the Île-de-France region”.
Although it is early in the process, he said that he had spoken “informally” about the campus to some British colleagues and had already found some “strong interest”. If all goes smoothly, Professor Blanquer said he would expect to see UK universities establish a presence on campus around 2021.