The UK is currently the second-largest recipient of competitive research funding from the EU: 6% of students and 17% of staff in UK universities are from other EU countries. Nearly half of academic papers produced by the UK are written in collaboration with at least one international partner – and among the top 20 countries UK academics cooperate the most with, 13 are in the EU.
While collaboration is important, countries also compete with each other for funding and students. Our new research has found that academics and institutions across Europe, and particularly in Germany, could make significant gains as Brexit shakes up the European higher education landscape.
In a pilot project involving ten research teams across Europe, my colleagues and I interviewed academic staff, university leaders and officials in Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Switzerland and the UK. We wanted to find out what they thought the impact of Brexit would be on their own higher education systems – and what strategies were emerging to respond to various Brexit scenarios.
For those countries where higher education institutions offered tuition in English, such as Ireland, Denmark or the Netherlands, the departure of the UK from the EU may provide an opportunity to increase student numbers from both within and outside the EU.
In most countries, interviewees hoped that the share of EU funding going to the UK would be redistributed after Brexit in a way that advantages them. Some said Brexit provided an opportunity to recruit high-profile academics currently based in the UK and were relatively candid about their hopes to “poach” UK-based academics.
In particular, Germany – already the main recipient of EU research funding, and the most frequently chosen partner in large research bids – emerges as a significant potential “winner” from Brexit. Academics at universities in both northern and eastern Europe were planning to reinforce their existing partnerships with German institutions ahead of Brexit. Plans were also made to reinforce non-EU collaborations.
Despite their smaller populations, Scandinavian countries are also well placed in the competition for funding, students and influence at EU level. However, countries in central, eastern and southern Europe such as Poland, Portugal and Hungary did not see themselves as strong players or influencers. The people our colleagues interviewed in these countries felt that their countries were unlikely to benefit from Brexit as much as the bigger players such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain.
In spite of these hopes and emerging strategies, the potential departure of the UK was largely perceived as a net loss for research and education across Europe, and the people we interviewed were keen to express their solidarity to their UK colleagues.
Impact on British universities
The research we did in the UK revealed very varied perspectives on the future. Some interviewees were optimistic that the UK would have no difficulty in maintaining existing partnerships or attracting new collaborations due to its status after Brexit. But others were extremely anxious that jobs, departments and institutions would disappear. Anxiety was particularly noticeable in the humanities.
Early career researchers felt particularly vulnerable as their employment largely depends on the availability of research grants. The prospect of a hard Brexit complicated their perceptions of their future in the UK and in the higher education sector in particular. But this climate of fear did not only affect researchers based in the UK – the fear of a net loss of early career positions across the EU as a result of Brexit was also echoed by early career researchers interviewed elsewhere.
Interviewees across the countries we studied expressed a willingness to continue collaborating with UK partners but were also concerned about the excessive administrative burdens that such cooperation would entail. Due to the continued uncertainty about the future position of the UK, participants were reluctant to involve British partners in future bids for EU research funding.
European research under threat
Concerns for the quality and reputation of European research were also widespread. The UK has played a significant role in enhancing European research – whcih has brought benefits to all members. The UK is an important partner for research teams across Europe – several key pan-European research facilities such as the High Power Laser Energy Research Facility or the European Social Survey are based in the UK, and it is a popular destination for students and staff from many EU countries. The UK is also perceived as a “portal” to the European Research Area for non-EU students and researchers.
There was a fear that Brexit, together with other euroscepticism across the EU, gave a negative image of Europe and posed a threat to the European project at large. In particular in countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands where anti-EU movements had gained some ground, interviewees wondered whether a “good deal” for the UK would be beneficial. Or whether it would actually encourage other countries to leave, with the risk of dismantling the EU.
Brexit is likely to affect all universities across the EU in some way. In some countries, it’s felt that smaller institutions and specific disciplines such as modern languages are likely to suffer more than others.
A number of participants across the countries we studied were eager to continue collaborating with their UK-based colleagues, no matter the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. As one German interviewee said: “If politicians decide to limit internationalisation in academia, academics resist and do the opposite”.