There is now almost exactly one year until the UK leaves the EU.
The period since the referendum on the UK’s membership, which took place in June 2016, has been one of intense activity for us in Universities UK – the body which represents UK University Vice Chancellors (Rectors).
Our university system is deeply entwined with our European counterparts. Nearly 17 per cent of our staff and over 5 per cent of our students come from other EU countries. Over 300,000 UK higher education students have spent time in other European countries under the Erasmus programme. In an era in which good research is increasingly dependent on international collaboration, the majority of our research partners can be found amongst our nearest neighbours.
UK universities campaigned hard for a vote to remain in the EU, and we were shocked when the result went the other way. We feared that Brexit would leave us outside of the structures which support collaboration in research and student exchange with Europe; and which allow for the essential mobility of academic staff between universities.
The morning of the result was bleak, but by 7 am myself and several colleagues were sitting around the table in our Chief Executive’s office, with strong coffee, trying to work out how to mitigate the impact of the result on students, staff and research.
The UK is Sweden’s second most frequent partner in research collaboration. Together we produce about 3,500 co-authored articles a year.
We understood one thing immediately: we would need to strengthen our ties with European counterparts. In or out of the EU, we could not envisage a future in which essential collaboration in education and research did not continue. Our job would be to work with our partners around Europe to find the way.
We also understood that Brexit doesn’t just harm the UK. It risks damaging other university systems because of the extent of our joint work. We understood therefore that we would need to work together with other European countries to gather the political support to find a solution.
This is what brought us to Sweden earlier this month. The UK is Sweden’s second most frequent partner in research collaboration. Together we produce about 3,500 co-authored articles a year. The UK is a popular destination for Swedish students, both for student exchange, and for full degrees. In the last academic year almost 3,000 Swedish students were studying full degrees in the UK. UK students who study in Sweden are more satisfied than those who go to other destinations. There are many reasons for us to deepen our relationship and work together to avoid the worst potential consequences of Brexit.
The priority for our trip was to get across one simple message: keep working with us as you always have.
The priority for our trip was to get across one simple message: keep working with us as you always have. During phase one of the Brexit negotiations, the UK and EU agreed that the UK would continue to participate in Horizon 2020 and Erasmus + to the end of the current programmes. So researchers can continue to work with UK counterparts and apply for funding together. You can still come to the UK on Erasmus exchanges. And students who come to the UK for full degree study in 2018 will continue to be treated the same as UK students for the full duration of their course – with access to UK loans to cover fees, set at the same level as those for UK students. We want to make sure that colleagues in Swedish universities understand that there is no reason to cut ties with British colleagues.
But we also wanted to talk about the future. We need help making sure that, in the discussions about the UK’s future relationship with the EU, research and education remain priorities for the politicians. It is good to see that UK Prime Minister Theresa May repeatedly references cooperation in research as an important part of the future relationship the UK wants to achieve with the EU, and it has been good to hear EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier echo those comments. We need our European counterparts to keep pressing for early agreement that the UK can be a full participant, as an associated country, in FP9 and the next Erasmus programme.
In the worst case scenario, if full association to FP9 and Erasmus + are not possible, we need an idea about how we would maintain our relationship. While I hope that it won’t come to this, it is prudent to think about what mechanisms might support collaboration with Sweden, just as we have done with our non-EU partners in the US, China, Brazil and elsewhere.
Meanwhile we can work to increase the links between our universities by bringing our Vice Chancellors together with Swedish colleagues to explore areas where new partnerships might be developed. Before Brexit, we took our European networks for granted. We don’t anymore. We are committed to working hard to facilitate the development of new university to university relationships, as well as at the political level.
The upside to Brexit is this: we value our role within the European research ecosystem more than ever before, and are willing to work harder than before to preserve it.