‘Strengthen Commonwealth links’ to stay international

Stronger links between universities in the Commonwealth of Nations could help Britain and its former dependencies strengthen cooperation in international research and higher education after Brexit, the president of the House of Representatives in Cyprus told the International Higher Education Forum (IHEF).

Speaking in the opening keynote address at this year’s forum organised by Universities UK International, Demetris Syllouris said: “We are working very hard to improve the network of 53 Commonwealth countries and we suggest that after Brexit there must be a structural dialogue between the European Union and the Commonwealth – and one of the first issues to be discussed should be education and mobility.”

The Republic of Cyprus and Malta are members of both the European Union and the Commonwealth and Syllouris suggested they could act as a bridge to help maintain and strengthen cross-border cooperation in education and research after the United Kingdom leaves the EU.

“We need to look at new ways of cooperation – despite Brexit – through new technologies and distance learning and mobility,” he said.

“Cyprus already enjoys close ties with the UK, particularly in education, and the two countries share educational values and English is widely spoken in Cyprus. The UK has always been a favourite destination for Cypriot students, who appreciate the qualities and the opportunities that the UK offers to students.”

But it is not a one-sided relationship and collaboration has increased in recent years between UK and Cypriot higher education and research institutions, with the expansion of transnational education, which is helping Cyprus move its economy away from a service-based approach towards a research and innovation focused world.

Syllouris highlighted satellite campuses, such as the medical school set up by St George’s, University of London and the University of Nicosia in 2011 and the KIOS research and innovation centre partnership with Imperial College London at the University of Cyprus.

He said: “The implications of Brexit on the daily lives of citizens is our major concern and we will spare no effort to ensure that citizens continue to enjoy the benefits and opportunities of a close collaboration between the UK and Cyprus.

“Throughout the Brexit negotiations, Cyprus has followed a constructive approach – aiming to ensure that ties and cooperation between the UK and its EU partners are not severed.”

Syllouris said Cyprus wanted to forge closer links with Commonwealth institutions, including through the Association of Commonwealth Universities, and fully supports setting up partnering programmes that promote student exchanges within the Commonwealth and take advantage of existing transnational education cooperation and opportunities offered by the Commonwealth network.

Instrument of soft power

“Brexit could be viewed as the way to create more creative ideas and possibilities that we have not had the incentive to think of before. In a way Brexit has pushed us all to examine, in the most practical sense, using education as an instrument of soft power and cooperation that brings together people, institutions, cultures and working in countries, even where politics appears to be pulling them apart,” said Syllouris.

Instead of focusing on closer integration with Europe based on things like the Euro, Syllouris said: “Perhaps it would be better to place the same emphasis on using education, culture, scientific research and cooperation as the glue that will allow us to forge a closer relation with each other.”

Dr Joanna Newman, Chief Executive and Secretary General of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, or ACU, said ‘We exist to build international collaboration between universities across the Commonwealth and beyond.

“Europe, the EU, and its member states will continue to be important partners for all Commonwealth universities, whether in research, or student and staff mobility. We welcome the opportunity to work with Cyprus and with other Commonwealth governments to enhance and maximise these link."

The IHEF also heard strong messages in favour of maintaining academic cooperation and research activities between the UK and Europe from Norway, Spain and Poland in the opening plenary session chaired by Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor at the University of Exeter.

Professor Mari Sundli Tveit, rector of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and chair of Universities Norway, urged the Norwegian research community and students planning to study abroad to “disregard” the clear messages from the Norwegian government to avoid UK partners and “to consider alternative countries for exchanges”.

Nearly half of the Horizon 2020 funded programmes involving Norwegian researchers have UK partners, she told the IHEF, adding: “It is very worrying that Norway is saying this about one of the most important research partners in the world and I am saying disregard this. It is most important to keep your networks.”

Tveit also urged students to ignore advice from the Norwegian government. “I think we should say go to the UK,” she said.

Involvement in framework programmes

Professor Marcin Palys, rector of Poland’s University of Warsaw and the representative from CRASP, the Polish rectors’ conference, said: “We should do everything to avoid the UK being cut off from framework programmes. It is important for UK universities to be in the networks and we should do everything to keep the UK cooperating with the EU. We need to remind our own politicians and those in the European Parliament of that."

Professor Josep M Garrell, rector of Ramon Llull University in Barcelona and board member of Crue Universidades Españolas, accepted there could be a deadlock for the first few weeks or months after Brexit, adding: “But it probably won’t be so bad in the long term.”

Professor Smith thanked the government in Cyprus and the rectors’ conferences for their “fantastic support” and said: “As we have told the [European] Commission, we are not leaving Europe. The government and country may be leaving the formal structure, but we are part of Europe. It is the lifeblood of the university sector.”

He welcomed the “generosity of spirit” of colleagues in Europe, including those speaking at the conference, saying: “I have every faith that we will come out stronger and more focused because we know what it means to look over the precipice.”

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He also provides English-language communication support for Norwegian, Czech and UK universities and specialist media.