Research power shifting to Germany after Brexit vote, says report

European universities, despite public dismay about Brexit, also privately see it as an opportunity to poach UK-based academics

February 22, 2018
Germany signs

European researchers are turning away from the UK in response to Brexit and are instead seeking stronger links with Germany, according to a wide-ranging assessment of the views of researchers, universities and government figures across the continent.

Germany could be a major “winner” from Brexit, the study found, while European countries are “candid” that Brexit presents an opportunity to poach the best researchers from the UK.

Continental university leaders have tended to downplay the idea that Brexit could be an opportunity, either to attract UK-based academics or win more European research funding, stressing that the UK’s departure will be an unhappy, “lose-lose” affair.

But the new report, based on 127 anonymous interviews across 10 countries, paints a more mixed picture. German interviewees had an overall attitude of “quiet opportunism”, it found.

“In particular, Germany emerges as a significant potential ‘winner’, with countries in both Northern and Eastern Europe planning to reinforce their existing partnerships with German institutions,” says Higher Education and Brexit: Current European Perspectives, from the UCL Centre for Global Higher Education.

One German respondent said: “We are negotiating with an excellent researcher from Cambridge at the moment, whom we would like to attract; and in these talks this [Brexit] is obviously an issue.”

The “most frequently expressed hope” in Germany was that Brexit would be a “window of opportunity” to attract UK-based researchers, the report says.

One respondent from Ireland described Brexit as a “once in a century opportunity” to poach from the UK. Applications from UK-based staff had already risen, “leading to several recruitments”.

In Denmark, one university surveyed was planning a “recruitment tour” of the UK. And in the Netherlands, “some interviewees indicated that recruitment of qualified staff from the UK was being considered or actually already going on”, although this was not being done publicly, the report found.

In most countries surveyed, interviewees “were relatively candid about their hopes to ‘poach’ UK-based academics”, the report concludes.

On the question of overseas students, some countries also spy an opportunity. In the Netherlands, where there has been a shift to teaching in English, universities have become “more aware of the opportunity to position the Netherlands globally as the number two destination (or as the best alternative to the UK) in the EU for study abroad”.

But opportunism is far from the only sentiment: if the UK departs Europe’s funding schemes, this would “damage the quality and reputation of European research”, respondents feared.

Whether the UK will remain part of common research efforts like the European Research Council is still unclear, and is up for negotiation as the second round of Brexit talks get under way.

The report also looks at Brexit-related anxieties in the UK. Some interviewees feared that Brexit would be used by universities as an “excuse to push further organisational restructurings, resulting in the closing of academic departments and large-scale redundancies”.

“Some universities are concerned that they will end up as teaching-only institutions as EU research money will dry up,” it says.

The UK’s sector-wide university bodies also want to avoid being seen as “remoaners”, it discovered. “Brexit is a threat because we did not articulate what we want under this scenario. We have a global brand. The world is bigger than Europe,” one mission group leader said.

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