Brexit is a big risk – and an opportunity to become a global centre for learning

We must market ourselves as an English-speaking, highly educated and welcoming island at the heart of Europe

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has signalled that one key focus of the shared island initiative in his department will be on education and research. Photograph:  Julien Behal

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has signalled that one key focus of the shared island initiative in his department will be on education and research. Photograph: Julien Behal

 

Brexit poses significant challenges for relationships on these islands. But it also provides an opportunity for Ireland in higher education and research.

There has long been close collaboration in this area on these shores. Ireland and the UK share a common quality assurance and peer-review culture and there is extensive co-operation between universities and higher education and research organisations. There are over 10,000 students in UK universities who have Republic of Ireland home addresses (this number has fallen a little in recent years) while there are over 1,100 British and 1,300 Northern Irish students studying full time in Ireland. There are over 2,300 Irish staff working in UK Universities. There have been over 900 links between Irish and UK research projects under the EU Horizon 2020 research programme.

The challenge is there to maintain – strengthen even – the close historic relationship in education and research

Free movement of staff and students is something from which the Republic’s universities benefit as well as the UK’s. And cross-border flows within the island of Ireland for educational purposes are a key part of supporting a peaceful and prosperous relationship between north and south. The Government’s work in ensuring that Irish students who wish to study in the UK and vice-versa will be treated as they were before for fees and financial support purposes is welcome.

The challenge is there to maintain – strengthen even – the close historic relationship in education and research. A good starting point is a recognition across the UK and Ireland that cross-border (real and virtual) collaboration is hugely valuable. Joint professorships between the UK and Ireland and the establishment of a UK-Ireland Joint PhD scheme are key developments to be supported.

Moves by Science Foundation Ireland and others in promoting north-south education research centres will be invaluable to research cooperation. Networking and policy conferences held by the Royal Irish Academy, the British Irish Chamber and others will foster trust and collaboration.

Brexit allows us to attract academics currently based in the UK to come and work in an open environment that is part of the EU

Developing a University of the North-West (honouring the legacy of John Hume) that could partner the future Connaught Ulster Technological University with Magee and Coleraine campuses of Ulster University could be a gamechanger. It is welcome that the Taoiseach has signalled that one key focus of the shared island initiative in his department will be on education and research.

But along with increased co-operation, in the twenty-first century battle for talent, we also need to see the opportunities for Ireland.

Brexit allows us to attract academics currently based in the UK to come and work in an open environment that is part of the EU, and Ireland must more strongly market ourselves as an English-speaking, highly educated and welcoming island at the heart of Europe in attracting international students and staff.

While increased use of technology may now mean that students can access courses anywhere in the world, post-pandemic there will still be a strong desire to travel to learn and to experience other cultures.

Ireland has never fully realised the value of education as an export product but also the potential long term gains of international students having positive experiences here. From English language schools to intense research collaboration, Ireland can position ourselves to benefit from an England that is increasingly inward-looking. (I specify England as the future of Scotland, its approach to education and our relationship to Caledonia will need to be the subject of further consideration).

With Britain looking increasingly likely to withdraw from the Erasmus programme, Ireland will feature to a much greater extent for continental students wishing to improve their English language skills by studying in an English language speaking country. While Ireland (in normal circumstances) sends over 3,500 students and trainees abroad on Erasmus each year, we take in over 8,000 from continental Europe. The UK had been a destination for nearly 32,000 Erasmus students - many could now be drawn to Ireland but we need to address how we will house them given the ongoing challenge in student accommodation. The long term benefits to Ireland of fostering such links could be immense.

The UK has talked about replicating the Erasmus scheme but its own House of Lords Committee on Brexit warns how difficult this would be and even if initiated, would take years to develop fully.

Even with some ongoing current disputes about the size of the EU’s research budget over the next seven years, it will still be in excess of euro80 billion. Irish higher education institutions and research agencies need to ramp up our presence in Brussels and with EU partners to ensure that we can target resourcing of major research projects and researchers here. It is still unclear, even at this late stage, as to whether the UK will pay to take part in the EU research programmes. We need to be prepared for whatever scenario emerges.

We also need to make sure that our visa and immigration rules for talented individuals from outside the European Union are more attractive than whatever the UK may choose to offer when the Brexit transition period ends. Ireland is in an ideal position to be the bridge between the European Union and the United States and the rest of the world in the development and regulation of new technologies – but in addition to supporting domestic talent, we need to make it easy for international talent to base themselves here.

In the same way that EU membership allowed Ireland to escape the shadow of Britain in trade and foreign policy, Brexit presents Ireland with the opportunity to present ourselves as the global centre for learning and research.

Senator Malcolm Byrne is the Seanad Spokesperson on Further & Higher Education, Research, Innovation & Science