Tuesday 15 October 2019

Daire Keogh: 'Brexit can't be allowed ruin collaborations in higher education between us and UK'

Close ties: Trinity College Dublin – the continued partnerships of Irish institutions with UK universities is crucial.
Close ties: Trinity College Dublin – the continued partnerships of Irish institutions with UK universities is crucial.

Daire Keogh

Tánaiste Simon Coveney has warned that a disorderly Brexit would be a 'lose-lose-lose' scenario for Ireland, the EU and the UK. In the area of higher education and research, this is particularly so, and determined action is required to preserve existing collaborations and exploit possibilities of a 'Brexit bounce' for Ireland.

The British Irish Chamber of Commerce has led this agenda, since the establishment of its expert Higher Education and Research Committee in 2017. This brought together institutions from the UK and Ireland and, critically, it included employers and industry partners who have become vocal champions of the cause of higher education, in advancing the 'talent agenda', and creating conditions for future prosperity on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Brexit threatens valuable collaborations between British and Irish universities. Many of these pre-date the European Union, but our joint membership of the EU has provided an elaborate framework of supports which have allowed these partnerships to flourish in the global age.

Student exchanges, ease of travel, and large-scale European research collaborations are underpinned by funded programmes such as Erasmus, which provides opportunities for over four million Europeans to study abroad; Research Framework Programmes, such as Horizon 2020, which have provided extensive funding to cutting-edge research; and Intereg, which fosters cross-border co-operation and development and is backed by an EU Regional Development budget of €10bn.

The UK and Ireland have benefited greatly from these schemes, but the British-Irish Chamber's agenda is not simply 'Brexit-proofing', but to exploit additional strategic opportunities. In May 2018, the Chamber hosted an event at the Tower of London, the first of its kind, bringing together both governments, funders, and leaders of the university and innovation sectors to consider extended collaboration. Both governments reiterated ambitions for continued UK participation in EU research frameworks, irrespective of the nature of Brexit, and the British science minister, Sam Gyimah, identified an ambitious agenda which demonstrated the economic potential of such collaborations in the life sciences, agri-food, space and satellite technologies, pure research, and innovation projects within business.

A successor conference is planned for Dublin Castle in the coming months, to provide practical support to policy-makers on the tools and policies that will best support partnerships between UK and Irish Higher Education, Research and Innovation systems. As a precursor to that event, the Chamber last week hosted a 'Celtic Connection' roundtable, which sought to chart a shared agenda based on the similarities in the scale, economic, and societal context of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and Northern Ireland.

Supported by the Scottish and Welsh government representatives in Ireland, the event attracted the vice presidents for research from almost all the universities of the Celtic nations, together with national chief scientific advisers and founding council leaders. Paul O'Toole, CEO of the HEA, participated - as did Brian MacCraith, chair of the Irish University Association. Together, academic leaders, policy advisers, and funders were united in their ambition for an enhanced framework to support collaboration.

Education is a devolved function within the UK (although affected by the suspension of Stormont), hence the rationale of the meeting, but a focus on the UK's Celtic universities was instructive, since their calibre, research, and impact is often obscured when grouped with England's global leaders, eg. the University of Edinburgh ranks fifth in the UK and has received over €100m in research funding from the EU over the past three years.

Indeed, such is the importance of EU research funding to Scottish universities that 23 senior figures from the Universities of Edinburgh, Aberdeen and St Andrews have written an open letter to Scotland's politicians, warning of the dire consequences for Scottish higher education if Scotland is locked out of the European Research Area (ERA). Wales and Northern Ireland would face significant challenges if European structural funds ceased and were not replaced by Treasury supports, but the cessation of EU research funding would present a mammoth blow to Northern Irish universities.

The meeting focused on practical measures to extend existing collaborative relationships between the Celtic nations. In the past three years alone, there have been over 4,000 joint publications between Irish academics and their colleagues in Scotland and Wales.

'Celtic Connection' will inform the Chamber's Dublin Castle conference that British and Irish universities are 'better together', and are best advanced within formal frameworks and with appropriate funding mechanisms in place. The British Irish Chamber has already proposed, through its Pre-Budget Submission, the establishment of a 'UK-Ireland Bilateral Research stream' and a 'North-South Academic Corridor'; two initiatives that we believe are imperative to the future wellbeing of the Higher Education and research sector across the two islands.

Daire Keogh is deputy president of DCU and chair of the British Irish Chamber Higher Education and Research Committee

Irish Independent

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