brexit blog Martin Paul

Almost 20 years ago, in 2002, I had the honour to give one of the “William Harvey lectures” at the University of Padua, celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Englishman’s graduation with a degree in medicine from the famous Italian university.

The lecture’s establishment is a testament to the benefits of academic mobility, of which Harvey’s story is a brilliant example. He enrolled at Padua after obtaining a bachelor of arts degree from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and went on to become one of the most famous physicians and anatomists of his time, laying the groundwork of our understanding of the cardiovascular system.

The recent Brexit deal will not end the UK’s involvement in this centuries-old European tradition. However, it will put up new barriers that universities, their staff and students will have to surmount if they want to continue to benefit from the academic achievement and intercultural experience that pan-continental mobility provides.

The Christmas Eve announcement that the UK will leave the Erasmus+ programme came as a surprise to universities on both sides of the channel. Boris Johnson himself said less than a year ago that the Brexit negotiations posed “no threat” to the UK’s involvement in Erasmus. Yet now the UK has dropped out without even a transition period after negotiators failed to agree on a price tag for continued participation.

From September, the UK will replace Erasmus with a new Turing Scheme, named after the brilliant British mathematician, Alan Turing. The £100 million programme is intended to send 35,000 UK students to universities, colleges and schools around the world. However, while the focus on disadvantaged students is commendable, the scheme appears to have been designed without too much thought about the reality of international staff and student exchange.

First, it is likely to be a huge challenge to have the programme up and running nine months from now. The Erasmus framework regulations have created an easy framework for collaboration; in their absence, UK institutions will have to negotiate contracts with individual overseas universities from scratch.

Second, as many universities have fixed teaching capacities within certain disciplines, exchange programmes are based on the “two-way road” principle. That is, in order to accept foreign students, they have to be able to send students abroad too. That, after all, is the true sense of exchange. But it appears that the Turing scheme is just about sending UK students to other countries. This makes it less attractive for universities in those countries to connect with the programme given that they can use other routes for exchange that are based on the established principle of reciprocity.

Last but not least, there are consequences of the UK’s Erasmus withdrawal that go beyond student exchange. The initiative to create true European Universities, which has led to the formation of strong university alliances across Europe, is also funded through Erasmus. UK universities will no longer be able to participate as full partners, disrupting decades-long collaboration and interaction with continental institutions.

Many of us have prepared for a worst-case scenario and have built up bilateral or multilateral collaborations that span the English Channel and the North Sea; Maastricht University, for example, has created such an alliance with the University of York. Nevertheless – and despite the UK’s continued participation in Horizon Europe – it will undoubtedly be more difficult to maintain close interaction in research, education and knowledge transfer. In the end, it will lead to more distance between us.

Of course, we on the continent will continue to expand and nurture our networks, but, for UK institutions, it remains to be seen if the concept of Global Britain will compensate for a less European Britain. That question is particularly moot given that going global won’t even be a distinctive feature of the UK’s approach to international collaboration. Continental universities already have a global perspective and international students are drawn to their accessibility, low cost and welcoming atmosphere. Maastricht University is far from alone in seeing its enrolment of students from elsewhere in Europe increase by more than 20 per cent this year; many of those students would have chosen the UK in different times.

Looking at the result of the Brexit negotiations, it is easy to derive the impression that more time was spent on discussing quotas for catching mackerel than on student exchange and university interaction. One can only hope that something can be done to mitigate the consequences, such as a transition period before a full UK withdrawal from Erasmus. If it can be done for fish, it certainly should be possible for higher education.

The Brexit contract is a bad deal for universities in both the UK and on the continent as it will inhibit the lifeblood of academia: exchange and mobility. As William Harvey well knew, restricted circulation can only damage the corpus – of knowledge as much as of flesh.

This blog also appeared on the Times Higher Education website (for registered subsribers only).