Brexit: Out in the cold

At the same time as the message from the authorities still suggests it is ‘business as usual’, there are apparent uncertainties about future university collaborations between the UK and the EU after Brexit. Negotiations this spring are expected to be tough.

The British referendum on the future membership in the EU that was carried out in June 2016 resulted in the Brexit side, wanting to leave the EU, winning with a total of 51.9 per cent. As a consequence of the referendum, a great deal of questions are left unanswered, both in the UK and around Europe, about what consequences this will have on certain parts of society that have close collaborations with other countries, not least in research and education.
This summer, Louise and Paul Davis brought their family to Umeå from Newcastle upon Tyne, England, to work as senior lecturers at the Department of Psychology. Just like in many other parts of society, Louise sees some evident consequences of Brexit to both research and education.
“Of course, Brexit will impact higher education; what that will look like at this stage remains unclear as nothing has been finalised yet. Judging by speculations and statements from authorities in both the UK and EU, ongoing collaborative projects between higher education institutions will continue until granted funds have run out. That said, it remains highly uncertain what will happen with projects that request extensions, or new projects in the pipeline,” says Louise Davis.
Louise Davis’s husband, Paul, grew up in Canada but completed postgraduate studies in the UK; his doctoral studies in particular were funded by an EU grant. In his mind, the divorce between the UK and the EU could have dire effects that diminish the perception of higher education in the UK.
“The unease within the British educational system is palpable at the moment. A direct effect of Brexit is that it’ll be more difficult for British students (and staff) to travel to other EU member states to study, and at the same time, students from the EU could experience challenges with attempts to study in the UK. Since an increasing percentage of the British educational system is funded by tuition fees from international students, there’s a great risk this will have grave financial implications for many universities,” says Paul Davis.
Personally, he has not noticed the effects of Brexit yet, other than the drop of the pound, which both affects the domestic economy and funding for the research projects he continues to be involved with in Newcastle.
Paul Davis also wants to emphasise that the decision to leave the EU affects many parts of society, and the effects vary in different parts of the UK.
“The infrastructure and cultural aspects of Wales and Scotland have benefited greatly from the EU membership, which naturally led to Brexit causing huge dissatisfaction in Scotland as it largely voted remain in the EU. North of Hadrian’s wall, a renewed chorus for another referendum on leaving the UK can be heard again, with the aim of being able to stay in the EU,” says Paul Davis.
Due to growing unrest among British researchers about the risk of defaulted research funding and cancelled international collaborations, there is currently a petition underway demanding that the country should negotiate with the EU making it possible to continue to carry out European collaborations even after Brexit. They also want guarantees regarding continued possibilities for unhindered cross-border EU collaborations.
The current British debate to a great extent also deals with the risk that researchers from other European countries choose not to work in the UK if it becomes too cumbersome. British media has already reported how the international interest for research jobs in the UK has dwindled.
According to Wasif Ali, international coordinator at the International Office at Umeå University, the European Commission as well as the Swedish Council for Higher Education (UHR) have expressed that it is ‘business as usual’ until further notice. When Brexit has become reality, some hope to find other solutions to enable the UK to continue to participate in the Erasmus+ collaboration, and in various research collaborations for instance.
“We currently have ten students registered, as exchange students, and approximately twenty as full programme students. Although the overall impression is that of uncertainty, the authorities have still been clear and suggest that we should continue to treat Britain as we always have, especially since the country is still a full EU member state and it takes part in the research programme Horizon 2020 on the same terms as all EU members,” says Wasif Ali.
He also mentions that the UK is the second largest collaborative partner to Sweden when it comes to research within Horizon 2020. The country that comes first is Germany. Germany has a federal election next year and it is, according to Wasif Ali, likely to be crucial for German politicians to be rigid in Brexit negotiations. They will therefore not be willing to concede anything in advance, which in turn risks having damaging effects on the UK.
Much indicates that negotiations between the UK and the EU will be tough in all areas. Even if Umeå University really wants to have continued and extensive exchanges when it comes to research and education, decisions that obstruct collaborations can come from politicians, and this adds to the uncertainties.
“We can, however, assure our students, current and prospective, and other actors from the UK that we welcome them all and we’ll still offer the same service as before, until a new directive states otherwise. Our partners in the UK echo the sentiment,” concludes Wasif Ali.


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