Some UK universities are shaking off the Brexit blues

Universities in the United Kingdom are shaking off their Brexit blues and forging new partnerships with their counterparts around the world, including with higher education institutions inside the European Union, a London conference on the future of transnational education heard.

The University of East Anglia was held up as an example at the Westminster Higher Education Forum meeting last week.

Its Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International) Professor Philip Gilmartin told more than 100 representatives from UK higher education and government departments that while Brexit was challenging, it was also opening up new opportunities to work with universities in China, Southeast Asia, India and Brazil.

After the Brexit referendum result, which will see the UK leave the European Union next year, the University of East Anglia also looked to its closest neighbour on the European mainland to see if it could use the transnational education approach to build stronger partnerships.

“We are just 30 minutes away from Amsterdam by air and as close as we are to London,” Gilmartin told the forum.

“We have had links for a number of years with Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam through individual research collaboration and some educational programmes and a lot of shared interests.”

This led to both East Anglia and Vrije Universiteit becoming founding members of AURORA, the new network of European universities with high citation rates for research and a commitment to producing socially relevant research and high levels of student satisfaction.

“As the domestic market [in the UK] becomes more competitive with less and less opportunity for sharing processes and experience due to that competition, our response has been to draw on the new network with European universities that we initiated with Vrije Universiteit so we can share sensitive information and have a high trust relationship,” explained Gilmartin.

“The AURORA network has a membership of one university from each European country involved and includes the University of Bergen in Norway and the University of Iceland, which both have experience of looking into the EU from the outside,” he said.

While working with all the AURORA partners, Gilmartin said they were exploring a deeper relationship with the Vrije Universiteit, including undergraduate programmes with UK students being taught in Amsterdam and Vrije Universiteit students being taught in Norwich, opening up the possibility of dual and joint degrees using the transnational education approach.

“This partnership we are developing will help to mitigate some of the challenges we know we will face following Brexit and we’ve even had talks with our partners in Brazil who wanted to know if they could use a collaboration with us to access Europe through the UK via the AURORA network,” said Gilmartin.

The University of East Anglia currently has 6% of its undergraduate students coming from Europe and 16% of its staff, with 23% of its research staff coming from the EU.

Barry Payne, head of educational institutions at the Open University, was also optimistic that UK higher education would overcome the challenges of Brexit and said they were talking to partners in Germany about extending their reach into Sub-Saharan Africa. “They are still very interested in working with UK partners,” he said.

And Patrick Whitfield, director (UK and Europe) at QS Enrolment Solutions, said they had noticed a softening of attitudes towards Brexit in their work around the next International Student Survey due out later this year.