Remarks at the British-Irish Assocation Meeting

Pembroke College, Oxford

09 September 2018

Thank you for inviting me to be part of this panel on Collaboration after Brexit. I’m delighted to be here.

I was asked specifically to speak about ‘the role of universities in shaping the mental map of young people’, and I will finish on that, but first a few facts:

Brexit is already affecting Trinity in tangible ways.

  • This year saw a significant drop in student numbers from Northern Ireland and the UK. There was a 20% decline in applications from Northern Ireland - down from 958 to 763 - and an 11% fall-off in figures for Britain, from 624 to 552. We regret this, particularly the fall off from Northern Ireland, because Trinity is university with a very long tradition of educating students from Northern Ireland. Because applications had fallen off in the 1980s and 1990s, we have put in a great deal of work over the past five years to attract more students from Northern Ireland, including adjusting A-Level results for entry and using student ‘ambassadors’ to promote Trinity in secondary schools in Northern Ireland. The numbers had been growing over the last few years and we believe the fall off this year is Brexit-related.
  • And we are seeing an increase in EU undergraduate applications. I don’t have the exact figures for Trinity but the increase across Ireland is 22%. We believe this is due to Ireland’s increased relative attractiveness of among English-speaking universities
  • It would seem therefore based on student mobility data at least, Brexit is already ‘in the minds of young people’.
  • We are also seeing an increase in applications from UK academics interested in moving to Trinity, including a number who already had chairs in UK universities moving to chairs in Trinity. I strongly suspect this is Brexit-related based on conversations with them. But of course it is all anecdotal at this early stage.

Trinity hopes to see UK universities remain in European research.

  • The UK is Trinity’s biggest research collaboration area. We have multiple collaborations on-going with UK universities which we would like to protect and grow. Some 75% of research consortia Trinity is involved with have UK partners and, if they are to fall out of European research programmes then these consortia would have to reassemble in some way, presenting both a challenge and an opportunity.
  • However the most important point is that the UK universities are the best in Europe. For Horizon Europe to be competitive, it’s important that UK universities continue to participate. There are 900 collaborative links between Irish and UK researchers under Horizon 2020.
  • Trinity is interested in cross-border and bilateral arrangements to protect undergraduate study, student exchanges and research collaborations. However, research collaborations are currently facilitated within a pan-European framework rather than a bilateral one, we do not think bilateral arrangements can provide all the answers.
  • If UK is in Horizon Europe, as we hope it will, there are critical questions e.g. will they be able to participate in the design of the programme. It’s all very well to be able to access the money, but the design of the programmes upstream of that – the topics the programmes will address and the nature of the review and evaluation process – is also a factor. How could it be to our advantage if some of the best scientific minds in Europe were not involved?

I think that, perhaps, Brexit is already affecting European research. The European Commission recently announced its desire to create a European Universities Networks and EU universities have responded by starting to put together networks. In Trinity we’ve identified five other universities for our network, and we’ve been approached by other universities looking to add us to their network. As far as I’ve experienced no UK university has been included in these. I wonder if some EU universities are already planning for a future networks without the UK?

Collaborative or Isolated Higher Education systems? Trinity is looking at a future of developing joint degree programmes, articulation programmes and dual degree programmes – joint campuses even – with our EU partners, as we have already done with partners in the US and Asia. Obviously we would like similar collaborations with UK universities. A sealed off/ isolated higher education system benefits no-one.

‘The role of universities in shaping the mental map of young people’. I said I would come back to this and will finish on it. Yes, universities play a huge role, and in particular universities – like Oxford or Trinity or Ulster – that occupy a leading role in their regions have to face up to their responsibilities. Who and how we educate determines what type of person enters leadership positions in politics, business, innovation, diplomacy, academia, civil society and the rest. It could hardly be more important. It’s not so much about the academics or the Presidents of universities –more important is how the graduates of universities think and act, and what responsibilities they feel to wider society.

I believe in universities pinning their colours to the mast: What are our values? How do we implement our values? How do we implement them in the curriculum and, perhaps more importantly, through the extra-curricular activities students engage in. And also through access & participation, global relations, alumni engagement and all the other activities of universities – what values do those activities promote in society?

In Trinity we are undertaking a renewal of the undergraduate curriculum centred around identifying the core graduate attributes we want to instil. It is here that the ‘mental map of the future’ of young people are shaped, and we wish to have them feel a sense of responsibility to society, their city and region, a sense of shared European values, and ultimately to follow in the footsteps of the great European humanist Erasmus in saying “ I long to be a citizen of the world’. Students should be our partners in this endeavour. That should be our post-Brexit future.

I look forward to our panel discussion. Thank you.

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