German university leaders have warned that British institutions should not be shut out of a European Union push to create “European universities”, fearing that the UK’s exclusion from the project could hasten post-Brexit isolation.
The European universities idea – networks of existing institutions that allow multilingual students to study all over the continent – was first proposed by French president Emmanuel Macron in 2017, and now has €30 million (£26.6 million) of funding behind it to test the concept.
In a meeting of German and UK university heads in Berlin organised to discuss post-Brexit cooperation, Bernhard Eitel, rector of Heidelberg University, warned that the “dark side” of this idea was that “in this model, the British are excluded, they are out”.
“It accelerates the process of keeping the British out, and that’s a difficult political signal in the moment,” he added.
Hans-Jochen Schiewer, rector of the University of Freiburg and chair of the U15 group of research-intensive German universities, said that any European university networks would “desperately” need British universities involved “to be competitive on a global level”. He said he could not understand Brussels’ desire to exclude the UK and Switzerland from the initiative.
The leaders’ summit also reveals deep worries over what Brexit will do to flows of students from Germany to the UK. Professor Eitel demanded to know whether UK universities would hike tuition fees for EU students after Brexit, and whether the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) would pay these fees. After more than a year of talks, “neither the British side, nor the German side, is willing to make...a statement”, he said.
But Peter Greisler, head of higher education at Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research, responded that the German government “can’t give you answers before the deal is concluded” with the UK.
One idea mooted by German representatives was to have a lower fee for EU students than for those from outside the bloc, although discriminating between different types of students could run into legal difficulties, those on the UK side pointed out.
There is a “serious concern” that it could become too expensive to send German students to the UK after Brexit, warned Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference.
Professor Schiewer also said that German institutions were in “intensive discussion” to give UK academics honorary professorships so that they could bid for EU or German national funding if EU funding was cut off post-Brexit.
Koen Lamberts, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, also raised the “speculative” idea that if UK universities were unable to win political support for UK participation in future EU research framework programmes, “alternative structures” could be explored that used UK funding to “support European activities” along with German counterparts. But no German university leaders picked up on his suggestion.