BREXIT barriers to knowledge exchange

EU membership brings support for staff and student exchange, says Prof David Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor, LSBU

Universities in the UK have a long history underpinning our reputation for quality, but a key part of the role of a university is to look to the future not the past – in terms of creating new knowledge, development of new applications and in providing courses that support graduates in finding jobs of the future.

To maintain this activity, universities cannot be inward looking. External partnerships with business and other universities from across the globe are vital and in the UK our strength in higher education makes us world leaders in international collaboration. For example, consider the fact that in the 1980s the majority (over 80%) of our research was authored solely in the UK yet now the majority (52%) of our work is co-authored with international partners. Indeed it’s recognised that such international partnerships tend to lead to work of higher impact and it is perhaps a key factor to explain why, with only 4% of the world’s researchers, we generate almost 16% of the world’s most highly cited research.

It’s the importance of these international partnerships which generate opportunity for UK universities – for both our staff and students and the key reason why I believe membership of the EU provides real benefit. Without membership of the EU we would still form partnerships in Europe but the barriers to do so would be greater. For example as a young postdoc I was fortunate enough to secure funding through the European Molecular Biology Organisation which allowed me to work at one of Europe’s leading research centres for my field. This was a transformative experience which enabled me to develop both knowledge and networks and which set me on my own career path. There have been 200,000 students and around 20,000 staff that have been able to work at other European universities funded through schemes such as the ERASMUS programme. These networks can be key to helping the UK retain top talent from both the UK and overseas and are a great benefit to cultural and knowledge exchange – around 15% of teaching and research staff are EU nationals. 

If we left Europe where would support to maintain these key links be found? The benefits to the UK are not solely confined to those university staff and students though. Within the UK we have seen rapid growth in the number of students from the EU coming to study and they bring with them knowledge and experience which greatly benefits our organisations. Whilst in the UK they also contribute directly to the local economy and recent estimates show that 5% of the student body is currently recruited from Europe, contributing around £2.7bn to the British economy. At LSBU this has been a rapidly growing cohort of students which support the university both financially and culturally. In addition to finance these students return to their countries and their links with the UK help cement the UK’s position as a global leader through the soft power these relationships bring in later years as graduates enter more senior roles.

The UK contributes just over 11% of the EU’s budget, but during the last seven-year EU funding programme, known as FP7, we won 15.5% – about £5bn (€7bn) of funding. Last year alone, under the current Horizon 2020 funding programme, British institutions secured £687m of EU research funding. This source of funding is especially important to modern universities like LSBU where current partnerships mean we were involved with more than €12m of EU-funded programmes in 2015.

EU research funding is especially important to modern universities like LSBU where current partnerships mean we were involved with more than €12m of EU funded programmes in 2015 

It is not only the funding but the ability to partner within a range of major EU projects across up to 25 countries such as EuroCoord, which seeks to improve the lives of people with HIV. Indeed my own research has benefited from access to specialist facilities in Germany and I currently co-supervise programmes in Portugal which benefit from expertise based in Lisbon.

UK higher education is world leading and so we would be able to continue partnerships irrespective of EU membership, but these would be harder to maintain with our EU partners, as at this stage it’s unclear how they would be funded and how we would influence the big decisions regarding future European work plans if the UK left Europe. Membership of the EU brings support for staff and student exchange as well as membership of large-scale multinational projects. These programmes help generate income for the UK economy, cement our position as a world-leading knowledge economy and help provide the base for the country’s soft power by training future world leaders in business and the professions. I believe those countries which will flourish in the future will be those that are outward looking and engaged in large-scale international programmes from across the globe – the EU is one key source of such programmes and partnerships. 


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