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Leading international universities through Brexit

  • 23 August 2019

This blog has been contributed by Professor Martin Paul, President of Maastricht University

Last year I was in London waiting for a friend when a young man approached me. To my surprise, he recognised me, and said: ‘You are Martin Paul. I am a UK citizen and I studied law at Maastricht and I just want to thank you.’ He was now working for an international law firm and keeping up his links by doing business with the Netherlands. It was just one graduate but it pleased me to know that he valued his international experience and was using it in his employment. 

Internationalism was a founding principle of Maastricht University in 1976 and we have the most international students (53 per cent) and staff (40 per cent) in the Netherlands. Although Maastricht recruits students worldwide, we are firmly grounded in Europe. I could fill every lecture hall bench with students from other continents but then I would be missing that European core. 

You just have to go to London’s National Gallery to recognise our joint cultural heritage and a tradition that dates back to the first origins of the European university. For a long time universities across Europe have built on this tradition and collaborated in teaching and research. The UK’s imminent departure from the European Union, however, threatens to disrupt this eco-system.

We are already feeling the impact at Maastricht. Before the Brexit vote we were attracting hundreds of students from the UK and numbers were rising. Last year the number was down by 25 per cent with just 132 new enrolments and we expect it to fall again in September. But there are signs that Brexit – or, rather, uncertainty around the withdrawal agreement – is also threatening internationalism in the UK. A hard Brexit would bring this initially to a full stop, immediately breaking down the bridges built over decades, or sometimes centuries.  

When the European Commission announced 17 successful bids under the Erasmus+ European Universities Initiative in June, we discovered that only three of the 114 participating universities are from the UK. The associations are made up of five to eight universities in different EU countries that will share a common name and open their programmes to each others’ students. The Commission is putting in a total €85 million to fund these associationsfor three years and expects national governments to match this.

Maastricht is chairing the successful bid from YUFE, Young Universities for the Future of Europe Association, which has the University of Essex as one of its members. The University of Edinburgh has joined the UNA Europa alliance and Warwick is part of the EUTOPIA winning bid. 

YUFE university students will compile their curricula from courses offered by our partners and carry a YUFE student card giving them access to facilities at our partners across Europe. Teaching will be in English and instead of a double or joint degree, students will graduate with a European diploma.

It opens up fantastic opportunities for students to study and work across Europe. Given the strength and international outlook of UK universities, it is surprising to find so few involved. The reasons for this are unclear but I suspect it has a lot to do with Brexit uncertainty. The Commission has agreed that if the UK pays the Brexit divorce bill in full, it can continue to participate in research. The UK is also committed to the Erasmus+ scheme until 2020. But it is far from clear what happens in the interim transition period, which could be two to three years. Another question is what will happen if the UK does not pay the divorce bill? My fear is that universities will not be a priority and uncertainty will continue to erode links. If things fall apart it will be very hard to build them up again.

This is not just a potential problem for Britain. If UK higher education becomes less involved with Europe, then the internationalism and global impact of universities in the rest of the EU will suffer. 

To avoid such a situation, we, as university leaders, need to be more proactive by extending our efforts to strengthen existing ties and seek new collaborations. Maastricht has had links with the University of York for a long time and earlier this year we decided that, with Brexit on the horizon, we needed to collaborate more closely. We formed the York Maastricht Partnership to help us strengthen our research ties and collaborate on joint PhDs, executive education and student exchanges.

Some other UK universities are also pre-empting the possible post-Brexit barriers by setting up agreements with EU universities. Oxford has a research partnership with four Berlin institutions and Cambridge is forging closer links with the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, for example. But there could be a lot more as I am sure many universities on the Continent would welcome such partnerships. 

In addition, universities must keep lobbying both the UK Government and the European Commission to make sure we are on the agenda in the Brexit negotiations. We must ensure that interim arrangements for research funding and the flow of students and academics are in place. 

Looking ahead, I think there could be a significant shift in student numbers and streams. If fees for EU students rise in the UK then it is likely to be less attractive to them unless universities can make a strong case for the advantages of study abroad. That could deplete the number of EU students who have grown up in the same European eco-system. Losing this critical mass of thinkers from a common geographical, political and cultural tradition would be a great loss.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that the UK is not leaving Europe, it is leaving the EU. Universities in the UK and the rest of Europe must stand firm against the populist trend of euro-sceptism and protect our shared cultural heritage. To ensure we can continue fruitful collaboration after the Brexit dust has settled, we must take action together now, rather than waiting for the already delayed outcome of the withdrawal settlement.

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