Brexit, Irish Higher Education and research: challenges and opportunities

With the uncertainty around Brexit affecting all sectors of the economy, its effect on education in the UK as well as Ireland remains a major unknown. The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has released a report laying out the possible aftermath of Brexit based on currently available information. It plans to update the report as more deciding events occur. Planning for post-Brexit outcomes is necessary to mitigate any negative impact on education in the Republic of Ireland as well as Northern Ireland and the UK. This guidance document presents a preliminary stance of the HEA on impacts of Brexit on Irish educational sector. It makes important recommendations including negotiations about keeping a soft border with Northern Ireland in order to facilitate cross-border flow of students as well as teachers post-Brexit. Fee reciprocity and student exchange programmes are recommended to stay as is status quo, or in case of cancellation, development of new programmes in lieu of displaced ones is encouraged. Research collaboration and funding are likely to be affected to considerable degrees and effort must be made to direct the flow of funds towards Irish educational institutions.Fee structure will be one of major matters to be considered after Brexit. Since Brexit is not planned to occur before 2019, all UK students studying in Ireland till that time will retain the EU fee status. It is as yet unclear as to how the fee of students from the UK, who represent almost 45% of EU students in Ireland, will be delegated after the move. In addition to course fees, other funding measures such as the Student Disabilities Fund (FSD) and Student Assistance Fund will be affected. If the UK formally leaves the EU, Irish students going to the UK and possibly also NI, may cease to be eligible for support under the FSD, unless an alternative arrangement is put in place.With 13.4% of projects won, the UK is Ireland’s largest research partner under H2020, which is the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever with nearly €80 billion of public funding available. However, after Brexit, researchers from EU nations are uncertain as to how to advance collaborative projects with UK researchers in case funding options such as H2020 and EU Research Framework Programme. Another matter of concern is the absence of funding from UK government post-EU-exit.Some deem Brexit as an opportunity to increase participation of international students, as Ireland will be the only English-speaking nation in the EU after the UK exits. Even as this mostly applies to higher education and research, it is a unique juncture to forward the cause of attaining more international pupils, with estimates of benefits to the Irish economy of approximately €1.6billion per annum. Ireland essentially ought to aim at becoming the centre of educational activity and research after Great Britain’s exit, with special focus on attracting intellectual pupils and teachers more than other European nations. This is to ensure maximal absorption of educational participants who are looking for alternatives to the UK and would have chosen UK if not for Brexit. Investment is needed on behalf of the Irish government into research funding and capacity building in educational institutions. In 2014, Ireland spent only 4.8% of its GDP on education, as compared to 5.7% by the UK government.There is strong commonality, interconnectivity and mobility between the UK and Ireland academic labour market. However, the possible need of a work permit after Brexit in addition to uncertainty regarding mobility may deter academics from either country to take up positions in the other country. On the student front, Ireland and the UK share similar pedagogical methods as well as comparable educational systems. This also leads to a number of efforts between parallel institutions in both countries. For instance, the British Council is the Erasmus+ National Agency for the UK and liaises with the Irish National Agency for Erasmus+ in the HEA. Post-Brexit legislation could see a divide in such effort-sharing. Another interesting outcome which may occur is the displacement of such students who would have chosen UK as their Erasmus destination to other nations, unless an alternative programme to Erasmus is initiated in the UK. This may lead to an increase in uptake of continental languages by Irish students in preparation for alternative Erasmus opportunities. Amongst all the speculation surrounding Brexit and its possible impacts, negative as well as positive, on the educational sector of EU, the Republic of Ireland needs to place itself as a premier destination for opportunities in research, higher education and innovation. Optimal investment by the Irish government in the above-mentioned endeavours, coupled with the upturn of the Irish economy and boom in the placement of multinational companies here, will aid in making Ireland a preferred choice in academia.