Our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Anthony Forster, tells the Guardian that maintaining a close relationship with the remaining EU countries is crucial to the continued success of UK universities.
Brexit negotiations may be in turmoil, but UK universities need the government to encourage even stronger links with the remaining 27 member states in the European Union, no matter how we finally decide to leave. We must ensure the UK remains a beacon of scientific excellence, driving improvements in productivity, job creation and growth.
The UK’s new relationship with the rest of the EU will be vital in determining the future of its scientific standing. Producing 11.6% of the world’s citations and 15.9% of the most highly-cited articles, it is rightly admired as a beacon of scientific excellence. The UK constitutes just 0.9% of the global population and has 4.1% of the world’s researchers. Among our comparator countries, we have overtaken the USA to rank first by field-weighted citation impact of scholarly publications. And after the USA, we have more universities in the top 100 in the world than any other country.
Delivering a global Britain requires the government to nurture the links our universities have built-up with European Union partners – not spurn them. This is why I sent an open letter to the universities minister to make clear that our global scientific impact has not occurred despite our membership of the EU, but because of it; it is the foundation on which our work has been built.
For more than 45 years, membership of the EU has allowed staff and student exchange across countries, research collaboration, joint degrees and a shared academic infrastructure of common quality and standards, and mutual recognition of degrees. It has enabled engagement in large-scale research facilities that have supported staff in UK universities to become world leaders. The depth and breadth of this scholarly engagement is unmatched by any other country across the globe. No one should trivialise the contribution our relationship with the EU has made to our global standing, and let’s correct any miscalculation of the effort we now need to invest in sustaining our EU 27 links.
Since the referendum vote, UK universities – including my own – have nurtured our existing relationships and forged new partnerships across Europe. This has included joining networks such as the Young European Research Universities Network, which will bring together a new generation of Europeans to cooperate across languages, borders and disciplines, and to address the big societal challenges and skills shortages.
We must now refute zero-sum claims that global Britain requires us to deprioritise our EU 27 links, in order to promote collaboration in other parts of the world. I have just returned from Africa, where I met the leaders of leading universities in South Africa and Botswana to develop relationships which complement existing partnerships with EU 27 universities, not replace them. These universities want to connect with a university which is part of a wider scholarly community of universities in the EU 27, not one that stands aside from them.
For universities to thrive after Brexit, we need to be able to recruit the best staff from around the world. Future policy will require a deft touch to ensure we remain a global destination of choice for talented students, academics and professionals from the EU 27, with the UK their preferred intellectual home.
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Equally, we need to ensure UK universities continue to offer undergraduate and postgraduate courses that include a work or study abroad experience through full engagement with the EU’s Erasmus+ programmes.
Finally, access to research networks in the EU 27 countries is paramount. This is not just a matter of tapping into EU research and innovation funds, but also forming part of scientific research networks. It is essential to sustaining the UK’s global scientific impact.
The government needs to recognise that maintaining a mutually beneficial post-Brexit relationship with our 27 European partners is mission critical to achieving its ambitions to become a global Britain.
Professor Anthony Forster