Blog: Germany is sad about Brexit – but not blind to the opportunity it presents – Times Higher Education (THE)

As the negotiations about the UK’s future relationship with the European Union reach their fractious climax, senior figures in British universities must be holding their breath about their future access to EU funding – and what that may mean for the UK’s ability to continue attracting top scholars from across the continent.

But Brexit has also raised serious worries in German universities over the development of scientific knowledge and the protection of academic values. A multi-country academic project led by the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) analysed the perceptions of Brexit among German researchers in 2018 and clearly underlined that these are genuine concerns, deeply rooted in academic discourses and beliefs. The interviewees hoped that Brexit could either be avoided altogether or at least mitigated by an agreement to keep collaboration in research and education at a high level.

The representatives of key higher education bodies raise similar concerns. The German Rectors’ Conference, for instance, promotes a declaration that demands the full association of the UK with Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ programmes. Similarly, the German Academic Exchange Service regards Brexit as an “attack against the constructive combination of European intellectual capacities” and likewise demands the association of the UK with European funding programmes.

Such demands have only got louder during the coronavirus crisis as the concept of solidarity has gained prominence. In addition, cooperation in science and higher education is highlighted as an instrument to protect societies from the virus and to facilitate economic recovery. As the heads of the Russell Group and its German equivalent, U15, wrote in Times Higher Education in May: “It may be an uncertain world, but there is one thing that we know for sure: that, together, we can achieve much more than the sum of our parts.”

However, the attitude of German university leadership is more ambiguous. Although senior managers are aware of the value of cooperation, they are quietly employing a strategic lens and regard Brexit as an opportunity. The exclusion of the UK from European funding programmes would reduce competition, making more funds available to support scholars and international students at German institutions.

Such observations are only whispered among university leaders, as interview studies demonstrate, and rarely reach major German newspapers. One university leader told the CGHE-led project that they “could imagine” that, after Brexit, their university “might have to coordinate more (EU) projects. But that would be (…) something positive.” Others expect a brain drain from the UK, with an increased movement of scientists from European universities and the UK to Germany. And even though German universities do not actively engage in recruiting overseas scientists, they do observe an overall increase in the availability of scientists from the UK and other countries.

This increase can be attributed to funding and recruitment uncertainties arising from Brexit. For example, one leading German higher education institution recently reported that it is “in negotiations” to recruit an “excellent scientist” from the UK, and that Brexit “plays a role in the talks”. The high level of competition for limited EU research funding triggers such cost-benefit thinking around staffing.

There is hardly any similar debate in Germany concerning the consequences of Brexit on international student flow, but that is unsurprising considering the absence of tuition fees at German universities.   

Higher education is a symbol of European integration and cherishes a belief in the values of cooperation, collegiality and friendship. Nevertheless, it is inevitable that competition for scarce resources like talent and funding may also trigger strategic responses. It will be interesting to see whether the pandemic and the associated push for solidarity will have a lasting impact on the way Brexit is perceived within the German higher education system.

Either way, if the UK-EU negotiations go badly and lots of excellent UK-based academics decide of their own free will to apply to German universities instead, no amount of respect for solidarity will convince German rectors to turn them away.

Tim Seidenschnur is a senior researcher and Georg Krücken is director of the International Centre for Higher Education Research (INCHER-Kassel) at the University of Kassel, Germany.

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