Resetting European higher education relations

Posted by Anne Corbett On 6 November 2019


s an academic, I am thankfully distanced from the day to day stresses Universities UK and individual universities face over Brexit. As they continue to prop up the waterfront against the still-possible No Deal, my work has turned to possible Beyond-Brexit scenarios. In this the Political Declaration looms large. It will reset the relationship with the EU, not only in trade, but in many policy areas.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s negotiator confirmed in the early days of the May government that technically solutions would be open to the UK as a third country. It could seek Association status with the Erasmus and Horizon programmes. The outgoing Commission then softened some of the regulations, opening up unexpected possibilities for the UK. The Political Declaration negotiated by the Johnson Government has kept education and science in the categories of shared interests and topics for dialogue.

But negotiation has been given an increasingly bad name in the past months. The UK government strategy to make the other side buckle has not impressed key EU27 players. Now it looks as if the new Commission is preparing to strike back. The Commissioner with the brief for education and research has just emphasised in European Parliament hearings that Association status was first and foremost a tool for prioritising the EU’s strategic interests.

It is a moment to reflect on what the sector can do, independent of government, to create a more positive mood in which the UK higher education concerns for genuine partnership are clarified.


I give you the example that I took away from a recent conference in Slovenia. It brought together the professionals of academic cooperation: international officers, Erasmus coordinators and the general secretaries of such European networks as Aurora and UNICA.

In stark contrast to the concerns aired in UK media that France and the Netherlands are looking for post-Brexit pickings, and to this apparent hard line from a key Commissioner, attendees from smaller countries were most concerned about the collapse of their cooperative networks in the UK.

Since they have nothing like the same university infrastructure as the UK, France or Germany, their basic concern was about accessing critical mass in scholarship and research. They rely on the opportunities of growing their own research base by participating in big country European projects.

Here is what Professor Pavel Zgaga had to say. He is an eminent academic, a former minister of education in Slovenia, a key actor in the early days of the Bologna Process, and now well known in several British universities for the outstanding young researchers he has formed at the Faculty of Education at the University of Ljubljana:

"Even in small countries, one can find ‘world-class’ academics, but they need to liaise with an environment of higher critical mass for their career development. International cooperation, and in particular European programmes, is a great encouragement and support in this direction. Without such cooperation, many specialist professionals would either shift their field of activity in a more generalist direction, or emigrate. Both scenarios would result in the loss of state-of-the-art specialist knowledge that is as important and valued in small systems as in large ones."

The numbers potentially at stake are significant. In Framework Programme 7, there were 1,090 UK-Slovenian projects, placing the UK third after Slovenia’s close neighbours, Germany and Italy, in terms of Slovenia’s international collaboration.

Were the UK higher education sector to turn its gaze outwards to such issues at these, it would surely be able to build a powerful pre-negotiation dossier which could regain its friends and influence.

But does the UUK or another UK institution have the data to make the strongest possible case for valuing what collaboration has brought not simply to Britain, but to Britain’s partners?  UK universities have been able to upload all their research contracts to a UKRI website so that the scale of activity is known, whether to negotiate with the UK government or the EU.

A similar cooperation database is surely needed on the basis that, in much public policy these days, what can be counted is what counts. And in this case, that should be a source of pride.

Dr Anne Corbett


Dr Anne Corbett is a Senior Associate at LSE Consulting with long-standing experience in the field of higher education and Europe as a researcher, a journalist and a contributor to public policy. She holds a PhD in political science (London University, 2002) and a BA (Hons) in History (Bristol University).

She is a former Visiting Fellow at the European Institute of LSE and in 2015/16 she was chair of the LSE Brexit Commission strand on Higher Education and Research, held under European Institute auspices. Dr Corbett also has a long-standing connection with France and has been an Officier de l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques.

She has been a team member on LSE Consulting reports to EU institutions related to education since 2013 and her research work on the Europeanisation of higher education has been shared with universities and public bodies in many European countries and in the US.