Ireland must invest in higher education to benefit from Brexit

Opinion: It is hard to shed 800 years of history, but Ireland’s future lies with Europe

Protracted Brexit discussions have highlighted how research and education know no national boundaries. Photograph: iStock

Protracted Brexit discussions have highlighted how research and education know no national boundaries. Photograph: iStock

 

Brexit fatigue has set in. While we are delighted that a “hard Brexit” looks likely to be avoided and that the common travel area is to be preserved, we have little sense of what a “soft Brexit” might mean for research and education.

Will, for example, the UK disengage from EU research funding or from the Erasmus+ mobility programme? What might this mean for Ireland?

In short, the issues that impact on education and research haven’t gone away, nor has the importance of putting our house in order so we can make Ireland a global hub for research and education.

What the protracted Brexit discussions have also highlighted is that research and education know no national boundaries.

Over the past 20 years, they have served as powerful integrators and, as such, have played an important part of the Belfast Agreement (1998) and the peace process.

Research and education are also fundamental to Ireland’s continued prosperity and competitiveness in Europe and globally.

International education contributes €1 billion to the Irish economy per annum and lays the foundation for future global relationships.

Academics in Irish-based higher education institutions have helped to achieve national Horizon 2020 targets and have won 57 per cent of Ireland’s total drawdown (2012-2017). This equates to €221 million in funding and hundreds of high-end jobs.

More generally, the availability of talent and the existence of a mature research ecosystem is a key future differentiator for Ireland to win foreign direct investment.

What, then, will Brexit, even of the softer variety, mean for research and education?

Data published by the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) demonstrates the UK is our closest collaborator for research and higher education and a significant partner in successful bids for European research and innovation funding.

UK as ally

The UK is also Ireland’s number one collaborator on research papers. In addition, the UK has frequently been a strong ally for Ireland in policy discussions.

While Ireland has a good track record in building coalitions with other countries, the loss of our nearest neighbour at the table could affect future EU policy development.

Though we have not wished for it, Brexit does afford a unique set of opportunities. To avail of these and to protect Ireland’s competitiveness, we need to do two things. First, to work with colleagues across the sector to make Ireland an attractive destination, a global hub, for the best students and researchers from around the world. Second, to maintain and develop further our educational and research relationships with the UK, Europe and rest of world.

In the global war for talent, we need to make Ireland the country of choice for the very best. International students are already voting with their feet

In the global war for talent, we need to make Ireland the country of choice for the very best. International students are already voting with their feet.

Recently the numbers applying to study in UK has dropped, with a corresponding increase in the number applying to be educated in Ireland. The anti-migrant sentiment in the UK is also deterring academics from moving there and encouraging those currently based there to relocate. There has never been a better moment to recruit these “Brexit refugees”.

It is time for Ireland to position itself as a tolerant, welcoming, and engaged multicultural country and leverage this to attract talent at all career stages and in all disciplines.

We want to make Ireland the destination of choice for researchers keen to have an English-speaking partner in an EU research application.

We want to support those eager to hold a highly prestigious and competitive European Research Council grant at an Irish higher education institution. This might involve a researcher relocating to Ireland permanently or on a part-time basis for the duration of the grant.

Antagonising Europe

The challenge we now face is to realise these opportunities in a co-ordinated fashion and in a way that strengthens research relationships with the UK. And to do so without antagonising our colleagues in Europe.

While we continue to be obsessed with Brexit, Europe has moved on. Hard though it is to shed 800 years of history, we must recognise that Ireland’s future lies with Europe.

We need to encourage our young people to learn European languages and avail of study, placement and employment opportunities in other European countries.

We must enable researchers from Ireland to become more active in Europe, leaders in their fields drawing down even more EU research funding and collaborating more with European partners.

These are the researchers who will then shape EU policy and future research and educational programmes.

At this exceptional moment, the Government also needs to make significant investment to ensure that we benefit from the opportunities to position Ireland as a global hub for research, education and talent, something emphasised in a Brexit paper published this week by the RIA.

Irish higher education institutions need immediate and significant investment if they are to address growing domestic demand for higher education on foot of demographic pressures

As the findings of the Cassells group and the evidence from university global rankings demonstrate, Irish higher education institutions need immediate and significant investment if they are to address growing domestic demand for higher education on foot of demographic pressures.

They will also need this investment if they are to become the partners of choice for the best researchers, serve as the destination of choice for non-EU and other students and ensure that Ireland remains competitive in the attraction of foreign direct investment.

Research ecosystem

Investment in Ireland’s research ecosystem is considerably below that of Ireland’s European peers. In particular, public investment in research is falling well short in its support for basic frontier research – which is the type of funding most eagerly sought by world-class talent as amply demonstrated by the success of the European Research Council.

The Government needs to move now to invest adequate funding to close this gap and ensure Ireland’s future competitiveness vis-a-vis its EU counterparts.

It is investment in the educational and research fabric of Ireland that will enable us to attract the best researchers. Without this they will relocate elsewhere in Europe or, more likely, to other English-speaking countries where research, especially basic frontier research, is funded appropriately.

With Brexit negotiations entering the next phase, the clock is ticking down towards March 2019.

If we can get Brexit right – and that includes making significant provision for research and education over the course of the next 18 months – the benefits are real.

As world-class researchers make Ireland their home, our drawdown of European funding will grow

Income from international education will increase. As world-class researchers make Ireland their home, our drawdown of European funding will grow. We will begin to compete effectively with the Dutch and Israelis for prestigious ERC awards. Investment in research and education will build global reputation for excellence and result in improved research performance.

It will also lower staff/student ratios, which is one of the key drivers for the global university rankings, along with how international we are, publication citations, and our reputation for excellent research. The position of Ireland’s universities will be enhanced as a result.

This, together with the greater availability of world-class talent, will be a key future differentiator for Ireland to win investment.

In other words, appropriate investment now in research and education will increase Ireland’s global competitiveness at a moment of great uncertainty and help to build a stable platform for future growth.

Prof Jane Ohlmeyer is co-chair of the Royal Irish Academy’s Brexit taskforce. She is also Erasmus Smith’s professor of modern history at Trinity College Dublin