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Ties that bind: Brexit to deliver challenges and opportunities for Irish universities

The UK’s exit from the EU may have bigger consequences for Ireland’s universities than counterparts in mainland Europe. Patrick Prendergast, head of Trinity College Dublin, spells out his concerns

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The head of Ireland’s oldest and most prestigious university says the UK’s exit from the EU has the potential to create big complications for Irish universities, and throw into question the status and rights of a lot of students.

“Brexit is something everyone is preparing for,” said Patrick Prendergast, provost of Trinity College Dublin, in an interview with Science|Business. “We share a land border with the UK which makes things more complicated for us. It has bigger consequences for us than other EU countries if Brexit is not negotiated in a way that is favourable.”

“There are complicated dynamics – like what about all the Irish students who go to the UK? Will they have to pay non-EU fees? And will we have to start be charging students coming down from Northern Ireland as foreign students?” Prendergast said.

Ireland and the UK have built an extensive academic and collaboration network. Of the 15 research projects Trinity currently coordinates under the EU Horizon 2020 research programme, 12 have UK partners.

The movement of students between the two countries has historically been large. Some 2,500 students from the UK currently go to university in Ireland, while 11,000 students from the Republic go to the UK.

However, Prendergast, a former engineer, is cautious about over-interpreting the impact on student movements or the mobility of academic talent.

Comments by the UK Prime Minister Theresa May on Sunday signalled she is preparing to quit the EU’s single market entirely. But assessing the Brexit odds, Prendergast says, “I wouldn’t be taking it for granted [that the UK will fully leave].

“I for one hope the country remains [in some form] and I don’t think the game is lost with regard to [UK] universities participating in [Horizon 2020 successor] FP9,” he said.

There may be some who see the greater opportunities to win EU grants once the UK – with its scientific heft – is no longer a member. But, “Opportunities for what? Worse science? We’d want to be careful of throwing out all the UK’s capability,” said Prendergast, pointing out that 20 per cent of all Horizon 2020 projects are coordinated by researchers in the UK.

On the other hand, Brexit could present an opportunity for Irish universities.

Trinity College could become a beneficiary of a possible flight of scientific talent across the Irish Sea. There have been informal inquiries already from academics in the UK about professorships and other faculty positions, Prendergast says.

Following Brexit, Ireland would be the biggest native English-speaking country in the EU, something that Prendergast suggests could also mean Ireland becomes a more attractive destination for non-EU students. 

Today a quarter of Trinity’s student body is international. “No doubt we could draw more,” he said. As a way of keeping the door open to European collaboration, UK universities are looking at opening branches in EU countries. Ireland is considered to be near the top of a lot of many lists.

“It’s not a straightforward thing to locate campuses here,” said Prendergast. “But we would explore partnering with anyone who wanted to come.”

Trinity is considering extending its campus into an area in Dublin known as Silicon Docks, home to a number of Ireland’s multinational tech companies.

“We are fortunate to own a site on Grand Canal Dock – a stone’s throw from the likes of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Airbnb and LinkedIn,” said Prendergast. The plan is to create a new engineering, energy and environment institute.

Prospects for Framework Programme 9

Prendergast meanwhile is beginning to outline some of Trinity College Dublin’s priorities for the EU’s next research programme, Framework Programme 9, starting in 2021.

Over the course of this year, the Provost will have a series of meetings with other rectors in the League of European Research Universities, an association of top universities in Europe which Trinity has recently joined.

“We like the set-up of Horizon 2020,” said Prendergast, but we would also like to see more “funding for collaborative fundamental research in the ‘societal challenges’” portion of the programme.

Trinity does well from EU funding, ranking nineteenth among European universities in winning Horizon 2020 grants. “And that is data which has not been adjusted for size. Imperial College London, for instance, has a faculty of 2,000 – we have 800,” Prendergast said. The 400-year old university also hosts half of Ireland’s European Research Council grantees.


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Related subjects: FP9