In praise of partnerships: how the UK government can support university partnerships after the UK leaves the EU

29 January 2020

At UUKi’s 2019 conference on transnational education one of the speakers told a story about the first ever visiting student to the UK who was - rather wonderfully for someone running an Anglo-Dutch partnership - from The Netherlands.  

The moral of that story was that for as long as there have been universities there have been exchanges of students and ideas, and for as long as we have been running these exchanges we have been forming links and signing agreements to facilitate them.

So university partnerships are not new.  But they are, perhaps, more important than ever.  With political uncertainty on the rise across the globe these partnerships can give universities an extra bit of stability, and an extra reach.  More than that, when they work well they also make us much more than the sum of our parts.

Take the York-Maastricht Partnership for example. Our two universities have been working together for some time and - a year ago - made a €3m strategic investment into that partnership.  Since then we have been working to build links between the two universities which cover the breadth of what universities are about, investing in institutional cooperation, in education, and in research. 
Led by brilliant academics on both sides of the North Sea we have recently announced our first tranche of research projects, using seed money from the Partnership to leverage £2m worth of total investment into projects that include using the latest neuroimaging technology to better understand mental health challenges, to efforts bringing together the two universities’ centres of excellence in global development to further work on the Sustainable Development Goals.  To secure funding, each project had to be ambitious and truly collaborative with research work taking place across both universities, an approach that the Dutch government has described as an 'outstanding example of Anglo-Dutch cooperation'.
In education, we’re working to expand the volume of students using existing exchange schemes, like Erasmus+.  We’re looking across our existing programmes to find opportunities to create new double degree programmes.  And - most excitingly - we’re also designing new joint courses from scratch creating new international opportunities for students in the UK and in The Netherlands. 
We have designed the work we are doing to be “Brexit-blind”, so we have not built systems which would rely on the UK’s continuing membership of European programmes, but there is still lots that government can do to support partnerships like this one to continue to go from strength to strength:
First, is continue the UK’s membership of the key arrangements that support the day to day student and staff exchanges that are the lifeblood of collaboration.  It is great that Ministers are very publicly committing to membership of Horizon.  We need the same enthusiasm about Erasmus too. 
Second, is to make sure travel back and forth is easy.  The harder it is to travel, the harder it is to build a constructive relationship with partners.  The Prime Minister's victory in November has given the government a mandate to reform our immigration system - it is vital that these reforms support the free flow of students and academics to and from the UK.  And those travelling should be able to work here too as well as study.
And finally, government should make sure investment is available to support brilliant internationally collaborative research. The work to strengthen domestic funding arrangements is welcome, but we will miss a huge opportunity if this funding isn’t designed with international cooperation at its core.  UKRI should use this moment to explore bilateral funding agreements with other nations to provide further incentives to set up strong, research focused university partnerships
We’re building the York-Maastricht Partnership because it’s a great way to provide opportunities for our students and for our academic communities, wherever politics, and the Brexit negotiations, end up.  It’s a unique example of European cooperation, but it doesn’t have to be: with the right package of government support many more partnerships like this one could flourish.  
Ian Wiggins is Director of the York-Maastricht Partnership, the strategic relationship between the Universities of York and Maastricht.


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