Sunday 19 January 2020

UK vote has thrown £1bn of funding up for grabs

Niall Fitzgerald, chairman of the Smurfit Business School
Niall Fitzgerald, chairman of the Smurfit Business School
Donal O'Donovan

Donal O'Donovan

Brexit has thrown £1bn (€1.1bn) of European Union research funding up for grabs, and Irish universities must act fast to secure a share of it, former Unilever chief executive Niall Fitzgerald has told the Irish Independent.

The high profile Limerick-born former executive is chairman of the UCD Smurfit Business School, and sits on the board of the Leverhulme Trust in the UK, one of the biggest private funders of third level research.

British universities have been huge beneficiaries of EU funding - but that has been thrown into doubt by Brexit, Mr Fitzgerald, who opposed Brexit, explained.

"The UK universities are going to lose £1bn of EU funding for research. The UK is far and away the European centre of cross-national research projects," he said.

"I see vice chancellors (of UK universities) very regularly so I hear how they are seeing this danger. They are going to be cut off from the funding," he said.

"It's not just funding, the Brexit vote will see UK colleges gradually being cut off from talented, able, international researchers," he said.

"That gives an opportunity for Ireland. It gives us an opportunity at several levels. One is to position ourselves as much as an alternative location for some of these research projects - not just in terms of work that is done here but that European projects be led here.

Second is to very actively now start talking to UK universities about partnership, because they want to remain involved in these projects and if we can slightly change the focus so that the project is led from Ireland but has a very strong UK participation that meets the needs of both parties," he said.

Boosting research funding to Irish third levels will help reverse the slide in international rankings currently affecting the sector, which is a concern, he said.

"If you can engage in that and engage in it quickly, that will give real impetus to the research funding focus in Ireland, and that feeds back into the competitiveness of the universities and there is a real virtuous circle." To do that Government has to have a framework and a plan, as do the universities, he said, "and they need to start doing things now".

Ireland, with the exception of business schools, has gone down in the rankings, in part because staff-student ratios increased significantly after the crash when funding was tightened.

Funding has to go up, he said, including fees - though he insists any regime must keep higher education open to all.

"What you have to do is give your university sector freedom and the ability to generate more of its own revenue.

"If I go back to UCD Smurfit, it is only 30pc dependent on Government yet it is bound as if it was 100pc: in terms of salaries, in terms of ability to recruit people."

You must give more freedom so that we can then generate the resources ourselves the universities to invest in significantly higher offering and that permits us to move back up the rankings and that makes us even more competitive."

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