The UK’s research-intensive universities are hurrying to create partnerships with German institutions to continue to benefit from continental funding after Brexit.
The University of Oxford has said that a new alliance with four Berlin universities could help its academics to win joint grants from British and German funders, while another Russell Group university expects to announce a similar partnership soon.
The moves come as British institutions face continued uncertainty over whether the UK will remain part of future European Union research frameworks, including the prestigious European Research Council.
Alastair Buchan, Oxford’s head of Brexit strategy, told Times Higher Education that the link with Berlin was “quite different from the usual research collaborations between one group or one area of scholarship” and was spread “across the whole university as opposed to one department or faculty”.
“We actually should have done this for the past 30 to 40 years,” he said. But because the university had felt “secure” as part of the EU, it had not put in the infrastructure to support existing collaborations with European institutions, he explained.
One possibility is that closer collaboration will allow German and British researchers to pool grants from their respective national research councils. The Oxford partnership – with Berlin’s Free University, Humboldt University, Technical University and Charité university hospital – means that “Oxford academics and researchers will have a platform to spend time in Berlin” and will also “be able to develop new research projects and partnerships in association with colleagues in Berlin, which may be eligible for common funding from both British and German foundations and funding agencies”, according to information about the alliance released last month.
It is also “anticipated” that Oxford will establish a research centre in Berlin, and the German institutions a reciprocal “Berliner Haus” in Oxford.
While UK research funding has flatlined since 2010, Germany has showered money on the sector, steadily increasing the budget of the German Research Foundation (DFG) and non-university research networks such as the Max Planck Society. The number of DFG-funded projects with a UK connection nearly tripled in the decade to 2016, according to the foundation’s figures.
Professor Buchan played down the prospect of Oxford winning more grants from German sources. “This is not about getting money,” he said. He stressed that “we’re not creating a campus” and that the partnership would be “bottom up”, focusing on supporting existing collaboration in areas such as library access and intellectual property arrangements. Already there are 15 to 20 academics in each of Oxford’s four divisions working with the Berlin universities, he said.
It is “important that Oxford isn’t confined to a nation” as barriers to free movement of people go up, Professor Buchan added.
One Russell Group vice-chancellor told THE that he hoped to announce a similar partnership with a German university in early 2018.
Speaking anonymously because the partnership was yet to be confirmed, he said: “In particular we want to use partnerships to coordinate research funding from UK and European sources strategically where possible, even when we’re no longer members of the EU”, as well as creating joint appointments, research centres, PhD and master’s programmes.
But having a continental base will still not allow UK universities to access European funding if the country fails to negotiate a continued role in future EU framework programmes during Brexit talks, the vice-chancellor said.
Some EU rules are geographically restrictive: according to ERC criteria, principal investigators for starting, consolidator or advanced grants have to spend at least half their time working in the EU or associated countries, for example.
Germany was the “obvious choice” as a partner, said the vice-chancellor, because it boasted substantial amounts of national research funding.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that the Oxford partnership could be a “trailblazer” for the rest of the sector. “Where Oxford goes, quite a lot of the sector seems to follow,” he said.
“Germany is such a strong country to partner with because they are the only country that outperforms us” in terms of winning EU research grants, Mr Hillman argued. Meanwhile, “it probably makes sense for the Germans, too, as their universities don’t do as well in the international rankings” because much of Germany’s research is done in separate institutes, he explained.