Academic freedom is worth fighting for

Posted November 13, 2017

Last week I met with Student Officers and staff of Kent Union and students from the University of Kent (above) to listen to their concerns about the threat Brexit presents to UK Universities.

The University of Kent brands itself as the UK’s ‘European University’, with postgraduate centres in four European capital cities. Important aims of my work as an MEP is to protect funding and recruitment for UK Universities post-Brexit, to ensure that UK Students can continue to participate within the Erasmus scheme after Brexit and are not restricted from studying within European universities.
Many students are deeply concerned that they will have limited access to pursue academic study across Europe post-Brexit, if the Erasmus scheme is no longer available to them. Currently, the University of Kent exchanges some 300 students a year with over 100 European partner institutions. This is reciprocated across all universities within the South East: we must ensure that this opportunity is still available after 2019 and demonstrate that we listen and respect the voice of young people, the vast majority of whom did not vote for Brexit.

Protecting the rights of EU Citizens is crucial and is especially important to UK universities for their staff and student recruitment. For example, almost a quarter (23%) of the University of Kent’s academic staff are from the EU. Similarly, 41% of its international students are from the EU. Many EU students studying here are worried that their status will drastically change, and consequently affect their career opportunities, if no deal is reached on Citizens Rights. This is also a concern shared by academic staff, who fear that recruitment problems will lead to a dip in the quality of research and the variety of courses on offer.

Students also raise concerns over how easy it would be to travel across European borders, a right that has made scientific collaboration easier and which leads to better scientific research outcomes. Going back to a situation where samples were destroyed at the border would have no benefits for anyone.

The South East contains some of the world’s best research-led universities, who collaborate within research partnerships across the EU. The majority of funding is secured via the EU’s Horizon 2020 scheme and allows UK universities to work with their European partners across a diverse range of fields, particularly within scientific and medical research. In August I met with the Vice-Chancellor of Reading University, who raised concerns that the current research partnerships under Horizon 2020, must be allowed to continue post 2019 because the ability of UK universities in general, to continue to deliver world class research, will be greatly hampered if they are unable to secure critical funding made possible by Horizon 2020. I also met with Professor Buchanan and his Brexit Strategy team at the University of Oxford who told me of their serious concerns for the whole sector and in particular the consequences for medical research and the whole of the NHS.
I will continue to pursue these issues and to campaign to protect UK universities from a disastrous Brexit outcome. The South East contains the world’s leading university and a host of institution that lead and innovate in specialist fields. They are without exception strengthened through collaboration with their European partners. Tragically, some are already finding that UK institutions are no longer regarded as reliable partners for future collaborative projects dependent on EU funding. This could be the start of a viscous downward cycle toward a loss of talent and creativity from the economy and the diminution of opportunities for our young people.

The UK Tories will not act to protect young people’s interests after Brexit and care little about academic institutions. After all, few young people voted to leave, even fewer vote Conservative and those who have attended a university appear increasingly unlikely to do so. Their hard-liners show every desired to intimidate academics over Brexit and to control what can be studied through implied threats to future funding. Protecting the future of academic freedom and the freedom of academics to move freely within Europe is something, like much else, that cannot any longer be taken for granted.