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University of Edinburgh Principal Timothy O’Shea warns of Brexit’s possible consequences on higher education

The University of Edinburgh’s principal Sir Timothy O’Shea addressed the Scottish Affairs Committee on 24 October to warn that Brexit may have ‘catastrophic’ consequences on higher education in the UK, The Scotsman reports.

With the University of Edinburgh attracting a significant population of both international students and staff members, O’Shea asserted that Brexit presents an uncertain but worrying future.

Currently, around one third of the University’s research outputs “are done in collaboration with other EU countries”, O’Shea detailed in his address to the Scottish Affairs Committee.   

Meanwhile, about 25 per cent of the University’s research staff members are from within the EU, O’Shea continued in his address, along with approximately 10 percent of funding for said research.

“What one can say with confidence is, however you parametrise it, things get worse,” O’Shea said.

“So the issue is not do they get worse. The question is how much worse, how much less access to EU funding, how much less support?”

To counteract these consequences, O’Shea proposed that the government create a plan to lessen the impact of the restrictions Brexit places on international movement.

“Yesterday the Prime Minister said helpfully that perhaps a special relationship might be necessary for workers in the city, for the car industry”, O’Shea said.

“But God help me, if the city and the car industry deserve a special deal, then the universities … they are more dependent on the mobility of highly skilled labour than any other sector.”

As he addressed the MPs, O’Shea also noted that 42 per cent of the University of Edinburgh’s students are not from the UK, calling the Scottish universities “international in character” with a “slight majority” of international students hailing from the EU.

Following the results of the 2016 Brexit referendum, O’Shea shared a similar sentiment on the University’s website, stating: “Edinburgh is and always will be a truly global university”, and would continue to focus on “[maintaining] research and exchange partnerships across Europe.”

In an opinion article published in The Telegraph on 28 October, Alistair Jarvis, Deputy Chief Executive of Universities UK, also expressed that UK universities must not lose their international ties, stating: “Both maintaining a strong relationship with European partners and growing partnerships across the world will be key” to the continued success of UK higher education.

To promote connection with the international community in the ‘post-exit world’, Jarvis called for greater attention to be given to the voices of universities.

“To thrive longer-term, universities need both a favourable outcome from exit negotiations and to secure positive domestic policy change,” Jarvis wrote.

“It’s crucial that universities are heard in the political debate. The challenge is to convince Government that successful British universities are central to a thriving post-exit Britain.”

He continued: “universities must seek new opportunities, as well as highlighting challenges, and explain what support is needed from Government to create the conditions for universities to contribute most fully to the UK’s economic success and global influence outside the EU.”

Image: Simon Peyda

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