Time for a new internationalism in UK universities

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Three weeks have passed since the result of the EU referendum was announced. Having campaigned hard for a remain vote, it has been a challenge to move on. I have heard many people describe the process in terms of grieving: shock, disbelief, denial and some anger and then, gradually, acceptance.

The future will not be like the past. Although we might talk about preserving participation in the European programmes which matter to us most, our attention needs to move quickly to what realistic options there might be to ensure a strong basis for university collaboration across Europe and beyond. These options might include versions of existing arrangements or they may be something new. The challenge – and it is a stimulating one for a wonk – is to think differently and start with principles, not positions.

It is also exceptionally important that whatever we say to our new Prime Minister, and to the ministers who will be responsible for higher education and science, that the starting point is a strong post-Brexit Britain. Of course we have an interest in the negotiations around the terms of our withdrawal from the EU, and we believe that strong universities are essential to a strong economy and society, but we should not kid ourselves that everyone shares this view. In an environment in which everyone thinks their own patch is a priority, there is a real danger of being accused of special pleading unless we align our own sector’s interests to the wider interests of the country.

Fortunately there is an emerging narrative in which we play an obvious role – as Boris Johnson put it, we’re not leaving Europe, we’re leaving the EU. It was there in Prime Minister May’s first speech: “As we leave the European Union, we will forge a bold, new, positive role for ourselves in the world”. The message that our sector needs to give right now is this: the UK needs to get out there and forge this positive future for ourselves, and universities can play a central role in establishing the stronger and more diverse international relationships that the UK seeks.

At a time when there is a risk of real and lasting reputational damage to the UK, our exceptional university system is something that is likely to retain admiration and respect. It can be part of the effort to remind audiences around the world of the UK’s outward looking and international character. The higher education sector must continue to retain longstanding international links and commitments to global collaboration. Its soft power potential has been long and widely acknowledged. Those who study here are significantly more likely to form business relationships with UK companies in the future. In promoting the UK as forward looking, creative and engaged, we are an asset to the national ‘brand UK’. The GREAT campaign has squarely recognised this.

So my message to the government is this: use universities to help you. The benefit will be reciprocal.

In saying this I want to carefully point out that this is not just another way of lobbying for more generous visa options. Our interest in international connections is much broader than student recruitment. In research, in our international industry links, and in the provision of high quality UK education outside the UK – which grew by 13% last year according to new research which the International Unit published last week – we have a huge amount to offer and gain by engaging with other countries on their priorities as well as our own.

The UK and its world leading science base will play a critical role in working with international counterparts to address the great global challenges of our age, such as attaining the Sustainable Development Goals. Our government has created innovative mechanisms to support this sort of multilateral collaboration through initiatives like the Newton Fund, the Global Challenges Fund and the new DfID SPHEIR programme. We have proven our commitment to international collaboration. We have mechanisms to make it possible. I believe that a mechanism will be found to ensure that this can continue to happen within Europe as well as beyond it.

None of this means that we should not work hard to provide evidence of the immediate impacts of the referendum result. UUK is compiling and providing government with evidence of the institutions dropped from UK Horizon 2020 bids, posts not taken up, and the many other consequences of the result. We have sought answers to the questions we think could be answered now, and made sure that across government there is a wide understanding of the upcoming and outstanding questions.

In Europe we are building a coalition of support across other member states who share our desire to ensure that opportunities to collaborate in the exchange of students and research are maintained. We have used our influence with the European Commission to amplify our message that the UK should retain its status in Horizon 2020 with research communities across Europe.

I know that for many people it is hard to see the sunlit uplands. It’s hard for us too. But it’s done. Brexit means Brexit, and as the Prime Minister says, let’s get on with it.

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