Dr Simon Clarke is an Associate Professor at the University of Reading and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He is also a Didcot Town Councillor.
Given the press they’re getting lately, you could be forgiven for thinking that our Universities are only able to function because of an umbilical cord to Brussels, nourishing them with funding and “the best talent”. My reaction, whenever I read the latest grandstanding, is to role my eyes and move on to something else. You see, while I was active in the ConservativesIN campaign, I accept the result of the referendum. Don’t get me wrong: I’d rather it wasn’t happening, but it is, so I’ve got over it.
But many members of my profession can’t or won’t get over the fact that the proles ignored the advice of the intelligentsia, as some doubtless see it. Social media is alive with trainee researchers bleating about wicked Brexit, and the damage it’ll do to their careers. Alas, many are flattering themselves; academia has a steep, pyramid-shaped career structure, and relatively few survive the fierce competition for a permanent job. Fewer still will win research funding from the EU, which is the root of the belly-aching.
The EU currently funds a large amount of research across the sciences and engineering; in doing so, it facilitates many fruitful collaborations at Universities and SMEs, which would not otherwise exist. Research, while economically vital, is not cheap, and the UK invests less than the averages of the G8, EU and OECD.
You’ve probably heard that the UK is a net beneficiary of EU science funding. Well, you heard wrong. While it’s true that the UK is a net recipient of Horizon 2020, the Commission’s main science and engineering grant-funding programme, the UK is a net contributor if the EU’s multitude of schemes that fund research are totted up. So if the Government is serious about the importance of science and engineering to its upcoming industrial strategy, the UK will either need to carry on being a member Horizon 2020, or else the Government will need to provided alternative streams of funding.
But what about the Universities recruiting “the best talent” from abroad? In academia, there is a fetish for overseas hiring. Why? Well uprooting oneself every few years to move around the world, failing to accrue pension savings, not being able to buy your own home or to settle down with a partner who has their own (likely better paid) career, is considered by many senior academics to be the mark of someone dedicated to scholarship, as though it were some sort of religious cult. But quite why anyone thinks that such recruitment can only happen within Europe is a classic example of blinkered thinking. I suspect the explanation is quite simple: it’s just as easy to recruit from Sweden, Spain or Slovenia as it is from the UK, so many Universities have got used to it – and overlook what lies beyond.
It’s not just staff. Some Universities are worried that if we charge EU students the same fees as we do those from say, China or the United States, our Universities will miss out on the best students. But as arguments go, it strikes me as rather self-defeating, especially when the public eventually twigs that their own children will thus face less competition for access to prestigious institutions. An inability to recruit students from overseas generally would, in my opinion be an act of national self-harm, but that’s a separate argument which I’ve made elsewhere.
So why don’t we just stay a member of EU research programmes, but restrict Universities’ ability to recruit from Europe, just as they’re restricted in recruiting, for example, from Australia or Japan? Well, while the high quality of Swiss science is well known, the Commission has decided to exclude Helvetic Universities from their research and academic mobility schemes for the decision, made in a referendum, to not grant Croatians freedom of movement. The EU’s demand is for total freedom of movement, not just researchers. It is this that has got people worried and has triggered the increasingly shrill demands that Brexit be soft.
Given that the Prime Minister made it clear yesterday, as before, that freedom of movement is going to stop, it seems obvious to me that membership of Horizon 2020 may cease. But just like free trade, collaboration with our Universities is mutually beneficial to EU institutions. Moreover, Horizon 2020 has many associate member countries, such as Israel and Canada, which aren’t obliged to participate in freedom of movement. So if the EU decides to be as dogmatic with the UK as it has been with Switzerland, it will demonstrate that it values the obedience of a nation state over a thriving research ecosystem – a situation more akin to an abusive relationship than a cooperative partnership of friendly peoples. This is merely a matter of political will, and continued collaboration can happen if the will exists.
Last week, the University of Oxford’s new Head of Brexit Strategy, Professor Alastair Buchan, told the Commons’ Education Select Committee that there are benefits as well as costs to EU withdrawal. I’m pleased to see that my alma mater has decided to get over it and make the best of things but, depending on which newspaper you read, you could be forgiven for drawing completely different conclusions about what he said. Briefly, if you read the Guardian, Brexit is going to destroy all sorts of important collaborations. If you read the Daily Telegraph, Brexit is an all-round boon for Universities. You pay your money, you take your choice – but the reality lies somewhere in the middle. If you want to know what he actually said, you can watch it here. Such a balanced critique, which departs from the orthodoxy of the academe, will probably have earned Professor Buchan the sort of venomous incoming mortar fire at High Table, much enjoyed by Oxford dons.
What we can be certain of is that, post-Brexit, the most successful Universities will be the ones that maintain their collaborations and partnerships in Europe, but also look farther afield to forge new associations across the globe. These will be the institutions that kept their nerve, and got over it.