'Celtic Connection' to protect higher education from fallout of Brexit
Plans to strengthen links for continued funding
A new 'Celtic Connection' of higher education institutions across Ireland - north and south - and Scotland and Wales is being forged to help protect the sector from the fallout of Brexit.
It aims to strengthen links between individual colleges to allow for ease of movement for staff and students and to ensure institutions are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to research funding handouts.
The focus on Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales recognises similarities in size and scale, as well as the economic and societal context of the nations involved.
Cross-national collaborations already exist, but much of it springs from shared membership of the EU, and Brexit has forced an evaluation of what is at risk and how it can be safeguarded.
But the ambition for the project goes beyond a rearguard action arising from the UK's departure from the EU, and the emerging partnership hopes to create platforms for new opportunities.
The plan is being hatched under the umbrella of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce, whose Education and Research Committee is chaired by Professor Daire Keogh, deputy president of Dublin City University.
Ideas were fleshed out at recent round-table discussions in Dublin Castle, supported by both the Scottish and Welsh governments. That followed the first joint meeting of the sectors in London last year.
UCD's Director of Research Triona McCormack, deputy chair of the British-Irish committee, delivered a discussion paper setting out the challenges and possibilities for the sector. The meeting was also addressed by Professor Peter Halligan, chief scientific adviser for Wales, and Dr Stuart Fancey, Director of the Scottish Funding Council.
Ms McCormack said higher education and research in the four jurisdictions would be significantly affected, with a possibility UK universities and academics would not be able to access EU research funding at the level they have done.
That is also a big worry for Ireland because one in every five Irish research projects funded through the flagship EU Horizon 2020 programme has a UK partner. In UCD, the figure is 45pc.
From a Northern Irish perspective, Ireland has provided a ready-made European research partner, with more than half of Northern Ireland's research funding from Horizon for cross-Border projects.
Ms McCormack also noted the UK had 36 experts on Horizon 2020 advisory groups, while Ireland had 10. Such experts are in a position to influence research decisions, and she said it was imperative Ireland, with support from like-minded countries, positioned itself ready to fill vacancies.
"By doing this, we can prevent the inevitable push within Horizon Europe to move the research dynamic in Europe from an Anglophile approach to a Franco-German alternative," she told the meeting.
As well as keeping up the battle for funds in Europe, the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce also wants to see new funding streams developed between Ireland and the UK for research in priority areas of common interest such as agri-food, energy and cultural heritage.
Within the overall Celtic collaboration, the British-Irish Chamber is seeking a north-south academic corridor in Ireland to underpin and increase levels of north-south student and staff mobility, enhance research initiatives and develop existing and new partnerships with universities in other countries.
The links in higher education and research are also evident in staffing, with Ireland being one of the largest providers of academic staff to UK institutions - almost 2,500 are employed. In some Irish institutions, British staff represent 11pc of the cohort.
"The exchange of people and ideas, underpinned by shared participation in funding programmes, leads to significant shared academic output," Ms McCormack said.