Knowledge is universal and universities that deal in its acquisition and its transmission are quintessentially global institutions.
UK universities have strong links around the world, but their involvement in decades of European funding programmes means that their links are especially strong with continental Europe. While softer forms of Brexit wouId enable those links to continue, a hard Brexit would make readily accessing European Union funding much more challenging – perhaps even impossible.
Of course, we hope very much that this does not happen. But we have to be prepared for all eventualities. And a hard Brexit need not be an unmitigated disaster for universities.
There are opportunities for strengthening bilateral links with European institutions that a number of UK universities are already developing. At King’s College London, we have a special relationship with TU Dresden, whereby a cohort of scientists working mainly in medical research have joint appointments in the two institutions, led by a “trans-campus dean”. And we are also strengthening ties with Parisian universities, including Sciences Po.
But developing links with institutions further afield also makes sense if we are to remain globally competitive. Luckily, overseas universities are probably more open than they have ever been to establishing deep bilateral relations with UK institutions. King’s and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for instance, have programmes linking more than 20 departments, as well as a number of joint research initiatives. Furthermore, with Arizona State University and the University of New South Wales, we have launched an ambitious trilateral partnership called the PLuS Alliance, with more than 100 jointly appointed professors and wide-ranging plans in research and education.
China also offers vast potential for deep, mutually beneficial collaborations. King’s has research partnerships in health and medicine with Peking University, and we are exploring further opportunities in the country, including joint research institutes. Chinese partners value UK institutions, and my experience at both King’s and, previously, at Monash University indicate that they are open and collaborative.
Such bilateral relationships do not replace EU-style international frameworks, but they have the potential to do much to fill the gap by facilitating ever-deeper university collaborations that contribute to international understanding and boost the UK’s soft power. Brexit should provide UK universities with the impetus to do more to differentiate themselves as partners of choice in an increasingly crowded knowledge-producing landscape: working with partners who will go the extra mile to generate research impact and offer a first-rate student experience.
These partnerships should also involve the embrace of greater innovation, to meet growing and diversifying global demand for higher education. While branch campuses can work in some contexts, there are other ways to deliver purposeful education and research activity around the world at scale. From new opportunities in e-learning, through online and blended courses, to virtual conferences and smart laboratories, the way that our academics connect, collaborate and share knowledge is set for further change over the next decade. UK universities should lead this charge.
However, the flourishing post-Brexit Global Britain that the government says that it is committed to fostering won’t just happen by default. The UK’s success on the world stage will require more than clever marketing and connection-building. It will require visionary political leadership and a sustained focus on executing a comprehensive and flexible industrial strategy.
In my interactions with ministers such as international trade secretary Liam Fox and universities minister Sam Gyimah, I’ve been impressed with the degree of seriousness they are according to the challenge of retaining the UK’s international competitiveness as a higher education and research powerhouse. Both have been practically supportive of a number of our initiatives with overseas partners.
But if UK higher education is to truly fulfil its central role in the UK’s industrial strategy, we do need such figures to keep pushing for our sector to be given a specific post-Brexit deal: one that provides a joined-up package of support for education export promotion, student mobility, global fellowships and investment in talent and infrastructure.
As a citizen of both the UK and Australia, I recognise the rich legacy stemming from adoption of elements of the British university model in many corners of the world during the 19th and 20th centuries. With the right institutional and political leadership, the UK university sector can offer the world even more in the 21st century.
Ed Byrne is president and principal of King’s College London.