Big intractable political and economic issues continue to dominate Brexit negotiations.
Almost everything else is relegated to a “it will be all right on the night” approach backed by vague assurances from the UK government and dismissive “we’ll see” responses from Europe.
The status of our future relationship with the United Kingdom in terms of education is one of these issues. Yet, the manner in which it will be resolved will affect thousands of students, academics and researchers in Britain and Ireland.
Even before the inception of the European Union, there has been a long tradition of students moving between the UK and the Republic, as well as extensive academic networking, collaboration and research activity.
Several thousand students from Britain and Northern Ireland attend third level in the Republic, while 10,000 students from the Republic are estimated to study in Britain and Northern Ireland.
The possibility of controls at the Border and Irish students paying non-EU fees – about three times greater than EU fees – threatens to disrupt this long-standing practice. In fact, growing uncertainty since the Brexit vote has already hit the flow of students between both jurisdictions (see panel).
UK and Irish universities also collaborate extensively, especially under EU research programmes. There are more than 900 collaborative links between Irish and UK researchers under the EU’s main funding programme for higher education, Horizon 2020.
If the UK is unable to negotiate an associate membership of Horizon 2020 and other research programmes, Irish researchers will have to seek new partnerships within Europe.
Oxford University vice-chancellor Prof Louise Richardson is emphatic on the scale of fallout if the closest possible relationship with the EU is not maintained. It would be a huge negative for Ireland, the EU and Britain, she believes.
“I do think we are all in trouble,” she told a gathering in London recently to evaluate how Ireland and the UK might forge even closer partnerships to circumvent the worst of Brexit impacts on education, research and innovation.
Meeting under the aegis of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce were heads of universities, funders, politicians and ministers from both sides of the Irish Sea.
“Enormous uncertainty” hangs over Oxford in spite of its consistent ranking as one of the top universities in the world, Prof Richardson said.
More than a quarter of its academic staff are from the EU (125 are Irish), while some 16 per cent of its student population are from the EU (including 260 from Ireland).
She highlighted the need for students from either island to be regarded as “home” citizens, without being charged international fees.
“We need to ensure the best academic staff can come to the UK and perhaps more important that they are welcome and their work is valued,” added Prof Richardson, a TCD graduate from Co Waterford. That, she said, required freedom of movement and mutual recognition of qualifications.
She believed the UK stands to miss out on billions in EU research funding under current Brexit proposals. The UK government’s “pay-as-you-go” proposals – under which it would receive grants only up to the value of what it pays in to EU funding programmes – represented an “enormous loss”.
But it was about more than money, she said. It was to do with being allowed collaborate with the best universities in the world, and attract “new blood and fresh thinking” in the form of outstanding young researchers.
Ireland also needs to address underfunding in third level if it is to fully avail of Brexit opportunities, she added.
Anglophone Ireland could be especially attractive to UK academics wishing to avail of EU funds by spending 50 per cent of their time here.
Sam Gyimah, the UK minister of state for universities, reassured the gathering the UK was committed to maintaining rights of Irish students to access higher and further education on equal terms with UK nationals.
A proposed deal would be reciprocal – with UK students in Ireland treated in the same way as domestic students.
He added: “We are working towards agreeing the high-level principles with Ireland and considering details of future eligibility criteria for student loans and support in England following the end of the implementation period in December 2020, including ways to ensure Irish students continue to have access to student finance support . . .
“This includes rights to qualify for home fee status, student loans and other support, subject to meeting the same eligibility criteria as UK nationals.”
The Irish Universities’ Association says it is very encouraged by the commitment given by the UK minister for universities to seek to maintain free mobility of third-level staff and students through a Brexit transition period.
“Irish universities want to maintain close working relationships with their UK counterparts,” says the association’s director general Jim Miley.
“It’s essential that any uncertainty in relation to mutual fee arrangements is removed to enable university students and their parents plan ahead for three- to four-year study programmes.”
The association’s counterpart, Universities UK, is equally engaged on pressing items of mutual interest, as evidenced by a comprehensive briefing in March with a blueprint “to minimise turbulence and maximise opportunities”.
Irish Research Council director Peter Brown said the London exercise was worthwhile. “It’s not often that you get that kind of mix in the room together.”
Two significant developments since suggest progress is finally being made, he noted.
Firstly, UK Research and Innovation (funder of €6 billion in research) has re-affirmed its commitment to bilateral co-operation with countries on a par with UK excellence.
Most significantly, the UK Brexit negotiation team has tabled a presentation which describes “the vision for a framework for the UK-EU partnership in science, research and innovation”. Specifically, it seeks a science and innovation pact and aims to have it concluded “alongside the withdrawal agreement later this year”.
Greater clarity and commitment may be finally emerging on the UK side, much to the relief of all in Irish education and research, but indications are the EU position is little beyond “we’ll see”.
Brexit bounce? Irish applications to UK colleges are down – but EU applications are up
British universities have always been a popular option for Irish students in search of alternative entry routes into courses.
Nursing, medicine, pharmacy and physiotherapy in the UK are among the most popular options for an estimated 10,000 Irish students attending universities in Britain and Northern Ireland.
However, uncertainty over Brexit already seems to be affecting the flow of students between these islands – even though nothing has changed yet.
Since Brexit was announced in 2016, the number of Irish students applying to study undergraduate courses in the UK through Ucas – the UK’s equivalent of the Central Applications Office – is down 18 per cent, from 4,750 to 3,900 this year.
Post-Brexit vote jitters also appear to have contributed to a drop in CAO applications from the Britain of 15 per cent, down from 1,035 to 880.
Applications from Northern Ireland are also down by 10 per cent (from 1,718 to 1,541).
On the other hand, Ireland seems to be gaining in popularity among students in EU countries.
CAO applications from students in other EU countries are up 22 per cent (1,440 to 1,764) since 2016.
10,000 Estimated number of Irish students attending UK universities.
-18% Drop in Irish students applying to study in UK since Brexit vote.
Number of collaborative links between Irish and UK researchers under the EU’s main research programme for higher education, Horizon 2020.
Increase in EU undergraduate students seeking to study in Ireland since Brexit vote.