Universities search for the new normal after Brexit

German and United Kingdom representatives of universities and higher education organisations have discussed the post-Brexit future of UK-German academic relations, including how to plug the glaring gap in the UK’s Turing Scheme, the replacement for participation in the European Union’s mobility and exchange scheme Erasmus+.

The discussions took place in a virtual talk organised by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and prepared by the DAAD Competence Centre for International Academic Collaborations (KIWi), and coincided with the presentation of DAAD propositions on future cooperation with the UK. Erasmus+ scholarships for UK-German student exchange will still be available for the next two years.

“We should make use of this transitional period to develop alternative access routes and financing models for students,” DAAD President Joybrato Mukherjee maintained.

“From a German perspective, a European approach would be desirable in the long term. In the short term, I believe that what we need most is to swiftly establish a close network of new bilateral higher education agreements between UK and German universities.”

Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, emphasised the importance for academic relations of the UK being associated to the European Union’s Horizon Europe research and innovation framework on the basis of last December’s Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the EU and the UK.

However, currently there is uncertainty over how this will be paid for because the UK Treasury failed to include the £1 billion (US$1.4 billion) funding needed in the Chancellor’s Budget on 3 March, as reported by University World News.

Stern also maintained that the UK government’s new Turing Scheme could actually boost the motivation of UK students to go abroad by providing opportunities for short stays in other countries.

Glaring gap in Turing Scheme

But there is also a glaring gap in the Turing Scheme due to the lack of funding for incoming students, compared to the Erasmus+ arrangements. The devolved Welsh government has decided to plug that gap by spending £65 million on an ‘international learning exchange’ which will enable Welsh higher education institutions to continue with reciprocal staff and student exchanges as occurred under Erasmus+ but which will not play a part under the Turing Scheme.

“Collaboration has to change and perhaps be more focused on individual and strategic partnerships between institutions, and not the full range of what we were used to in terms of opportunities for students,” said Eva-Maria Feichtner, vice president of internationalisation and diversity at the University of Bremen in Germany.

Departments ought to be urged to engage more in Horizon programmes, from which, Feichtner hoped, strong institutional partnerships could emerge, with impacts trickling down to eventually reach undergraduate students.

Sally Mapstone, vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, emphasised that many UK universities would waive tuition fees or at least reduce them to make stays attractive for students from Germany and other European countries.

Mapstone noted that UK-German collaboration had existed before common membership of the EU and would continue.

Stressing the significance of cultural diversity, she remarked that some of the founders of her own university had been educated at Germany’s University of Cologne, and that it now has students from 140 countries.

“Academic colleagues have however gone through several years of real uncertainty about what the nature of relationships would be, and that has undoubtedly demoralised people and made them less willing to put in really elaborate research applications,” Mapstone said. “We have to build up that appetite again.”

Opposed to frontiers

Nick Hillman, director of the UK-based Higher Education Policy Institute, stressed that universities were opposed to frontiers, and that cooperation in teaching and research was more effective without them. Hillman particularly referred to the role of the Erasmus+ programme in terms of language skills for UK students.

“I do worry that Turing might make it easier for someone to study in Australia or Canada, which is fantastic in many respects, but this won’t bring back some of the language benefits of the Erasmus scheme,” he said. Hillman also noted that, as yet, funding for Turing had only been confirmed for one year.

Ruth Krahe, who heads the DAAD Branch Office London, said that many German universities were already in the process of negotiating new cooperation agreements with their UK partners.

“Universities are looking for strategic partners rather than more general cooperation,” Krahe maintained, and advised German institutions to focus on their particular strengths when considering partnerships.

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