Elite ‘club’ predicted to dominate UK-EU research post-Brexit

Russell Group institutions dominate tie-ups announced since vote to leave bloc

October 3, 2018
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UK-Europe collaborations risk being increasingly restricted to an elite “club” of research-intensive universities post-Brexit, an academic has warned.

Ludovic Highman, a senior research associate at the UCL Institute of Education and the Centre for Global Higher Education, said that the replacement of bottom-up collaborations under European Union programmes with formal tie-ups pushed by vice-chancellors and presidents was likely to exclude less prestigious institutions.

Since the UK’s vote to leave the EU, several British universities have established partnerships with continental counterparts in a bid to mitigate the potential interruption of collaborations set up under Brussels’ Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 schemes, and the loss of funding currently available from the latter.

Most of the major deals signed so far have involved institutions from the UK’s prestigious Russell Group. In June, the University of Glasgow announced plans to jointly establish a European Centre for Advanced Studies in Lower Saxony with Leuphana University of Lüneburg. That came just weeks after the University of Warwick expressed its hope that its partnership with the University of Paris Seine and Vrije Universiteit Brussel would be eligible for EU funding as a “European university alliance”.

Imperial College London has founded a joint mathematics laboratory with France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, the University of Oxford has formed an alliance with four Berlin universities, and an existing collaboration between King’s College London and TU Dresden could lead to the UK institution’s opening a branch campus in Germany.

Dr Highman said that at the moment academics “can choose to work more or less with colleagues at any university”. However, the growing hurdles in the way of UK-EU collaboration had led to a “rationalisation” of partnerships in which “research-intensive universities in the UK are prioritising engagement with other research-intensive universities”, he explained.

As UK university leaders took the lead in selecting partners, they were likely to focus on working with top-ranked institutions offering courses in English, leaving “quite a narrow base” of options, according to Dr Highman.

“It will create a bigger divide between research-intensives and teaching-focused institutions, forcing them to move in different circles,” Dr Highman said.

“If everything becomes very institutionalised and fragmented, that’s not good for research, as excellent research is to be found in pockets across institutional type. This creates a club syndrome,” he added. “It also diminishes the diversity of opportunities for students to go to certain countries that are not necessarily considered research powers.”

The issue will also affect collaborations outside Europe, as UK universities are encouraged to build closer ties with Commonwealth institutions, Dr Highman continued. They are likely to focus on countries with highly regarded higher education systems, such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, he said, adding: “No one is talking about Uganda or Pakistan.”

The intervention came as a report from Universities UK International confirmed data provisionally released earlier this year that showed that expansion of UK universities’ transnational education activities had dwindled after years of strong growth.

The Scale of UK Higher Education Transnational Education 2016-17, published on 3 October, shows that the number of students pursuing UK awards overseas increased by only 1 per cent year-on-year. The new report highlights, however, that once the three main providers – the Open University, the University of London and Oxford Brookes University – are excluded, growth for other universities remained a relatively healthy 4.2 per cent.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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