Thursday 24 May 2018

Brexit is an opportunity for higher education in Ireland, says expert

Niall Fitzgerald
Niall Fitzgerald
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Brexit is an opportunity for Ireland to become a world-leading research centre - but the Government must step up its investment in higher education if the country is to grasp the chance.

That is the view of international business figure Niall FitzGerald, the former CEO and chair of the consumer goods giant Unilever, now chair of the UCD Smurfit School.

He will tell a conference in London today that Britain's planned departure from the EU must be seen as a "catalyst rather than a catastrophe" for Irish higher education and research.

Mr FitzGerald, who has been knighted in the UK, says Ireland must prepare to take advantage of being "the centre of English-speaking higher education and research in the EU".

"It won't just happen. The Irish Government will have to invest more in higher education and be more flexible in how they pay people if they want to attract the best international talent."

Mr FitzGerald also referred to the one-third cut in funding for higher education imposed during the financial crash, while student numbers increased. "They will have to redress that imbalance very quickly."

He was critical of the physical infrastructure in many third-level colleges, which he described as "not up to scratch".

Mr FitzGerald was speaking to the Irish Independent ahead of today's conference on post-Brexit relationships between the higher education and research sectors of the UK and Ireland.

Unlike many other areas of the economy, Brexit presents opportunities for higher education and research in Ireland, although there are many risks and challenges as well.

Even outside the EU, the UK will continue to be a major force in the spheres of research and innovation - and the conference focus is on the potential for positives, and how the already high level of collaboration between Ireland and the UK can be protected and strengthened.

It was organised by the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, of which Mr FitzGerald is patron, and is sponsored by the Higher Education Authority and Science Foundation Ireland .

Mr FitzGerald referred to the UK's record as a global research centre and said the big concern in its universities was not so much the potential loss of EU research funding, but being cut off from the international pool of talent. He said Ireland had an opportunity to attract that talent, "and funding follows talent", but also must collaborate more with UK institutions, which will need to work with an EU-based centre.

In his role at UCD Smurfit School, he said they were already seeing an increasing number of high-quality applicants, including academics, who were starting to see Ireland as a place to work.

He pointed to the many links between Ireland and the UK, including the flow of students and academics between the two.

Under the EU's flagship Horizon 2020 programme alone, there were about 900 research collaborations. Mr FitzGerald called for a building of such relationships.

"We need to work out how best to work together," he said.

Irish Independent

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