Many Irish commentators have stated that some Irish businesses and institutions will benefit from Brexit, in the form of multinationals relocating here.The Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom have long historical ties in nearly every regard, whether they be social, political or economic. The nature of how these relationships will change and morph in a post-Brexit landscape has been fiercely debated. However, one area in which Brexit will almost certainly be detrimental to Ireland is that of higher education.
Both before and during EU membership, Ireland and the UK have been incredibly close when it gets to the university level. Under the EU’s largest funding programme for higher education, Horizon 2020, Ireland and the UK share over 900 collaborative links, more than Ireland has with any other country. Thousands of Irish students study in UK universities, and vice versa. However, Brexit threatens to seriously undermine this long standing symbiotic relationship.
Irish universities are already feeling the effects of Brexit. Recently, Trinity College Dublin printed an open letter in the Financial Times, in which it outlined how Brexit has already had a detrimental impact upon them. According to the letter, they have seen 20% decline in applications from Northern Irish students. TCD called for prudence and careful thought, and it highlighted how difficult it would be to maintain such strong links if the UK were to leave under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules – a so called “no deal Brexit”.
Dr. Rosarii Griffin, a researcher at the Office of the Vice-President for Teaching & Learning in UCC, told a group of researchers that Brexit would pose serious threats to Irish universities due to a lack of investment. She highlighted how Irish research status is falling in international rankings, which greatly influences who decided to study in Ireland, and what projects Ireland is granted.
According to figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Ireland attracts more international students than the average, as they make up 14% of all Master’s and 23% of Doctoral students. OECD figures also note that “expenditure per student from primary to tertiary education is slightly lower in Ireland than the OECD average, and has fallen between 2008 and 2013 as student numbers have increased.” The figures show that the government has not invested enough in higher education to reap any sort of benefits that may have come from the UK leaving the EU. The Irish Federation of University Teachers reported that “UCC’s core budget dropped from €90m to just €30m during a five year period, despite a report highlighting that every euro invested in UCC yields over €5 return on investment.”
Social Democrat TD for Kildare North, Catherine Murphy raised the issue of lack of investment in the Dáil earlier this month, asking the Minister for Education Joe McHugh if “his attention has been drawn to a national campaign co-ordinated across seven universities regarding a shortfall in funding the steps he is taking to remedy this situation?” In his response, McHugh said that in Budget 2019 the Government had provided “ €57 million in additional current funding for the higher education sector. This is in addition to separate funding that has been provided for pay deals and pensions, amounting to an additional €41 million in 2019.”
While many in the higher education sector welcome the additional funding, many believe that it is too little and too late to mitigate against the detrimental effects of Brexit. Speaking on the relationship between Irish and UK universities, Oxford University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise, a TCD graduate from Waterford, said “I do think we are all in trouble.” She added that Ireland needed to deal with the underfunding issue if it is to flourish post-Brexit.
Plans have been in the works to ensure that Ireland and the UK can maintain the reciprocal relationship they currently enjoy. The Irish Universities Association has said that it has been encouraged by the efforts made by the UK Minister for Universities to ensure that Irish students will be able to complete their degrees in the UK after Brexit. Looking at the bigger picture of research opportunities and the fate of students applying to study in the UK after the March 2019 withdrawal, as well as the chaos surrounding the Brexit deal, the future of the Irish-British relationship looks more uncertain than they have been for decades, not least for our universities.