Universities that put their hopes of encouraging European collaborations post-Brexit in institutionally led partnerships risk “constraining” the creativity of their researchers, a sector leader has warned.
Dame Nicola Brewer was speaking as UCL, where she is vice-provost (international), announced a programme of activity in major global cities and their universities, contrasting with the model of bilateral agreements pursued by many institutions in the UK and on the continent.
Under UCL’s cities partnerships programme, which will start in Rome and Paris, its academics will be encouraged to work with scholars in partner institutions that they feel are best suited to their particular field.
Support will be available over three years in each city, in the form of seed funding for academic collaborations in research and teaching and backing for a series of co-created public-facing events, in the hope of building longer-term collaborations.
Those longer-term links could lead to more formal agreements such as joint academic appointments, potentially providing a route for UCL to maintain access to European Union research funding if the UK’s access to that is severed by a hard Brexit.
Activity will start in a new city each year, with UCL keen to include major global centres outside Europe, too.
UCL’s move comes after leading British universities announced a string of partnerships with top continental institutions in a bid to mitigate the potential interruption of collaborations set up under Brussels’ Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 schemes.
Dame Nicola told Times Higher Education that UCL’s “more inclusive” approach avoided the creation of a “rigid framework” that could “limit rather than increase creativity”.
“We do think [that] if you put all your eggs in one basket, there’s the risk of constraining some of that creativity and missing out on other opportunities,” she said.
UCL is not entirely rejecting the model of institutionally led partnership agreements, and is bolstering links with nine European research institutions alongside its cities partnerships programme.
But Florian Mussgnug, reader in Italian and comparative literature at UCL, and academic director of the partnerships in Rome, said that it was important to allow departments and scholars to pick their own partners, rather than having them chosen for them.
“For a city such as Rome, and a lot of European capital cities, there isn’t a single university that excels in all disciplines…we tried to reflect that,” he said.