University looks for stability post-Brexit at town hall meeting

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On the issue of future research funding at Durham University, senior university staff maintained a positive outlook during a town hall meeting on the implications of June’s EU referendum last week.

Despite asserting in the vote’s immediate aftermath that “Brexit was not the referendum outcome that British Universities sought,” Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge sought to ease student concerns when questioned about the matter by Palatinate: “I am pleased to report that we’ve had a report back from the research information services office that European partner universities are still working with us as they did before, in fact they really are being helpful to us at the moment.”

Noting Durham Physics Department’s collaboration with CERN, he then added “at the moment, we’re sending out a message of business as usual and trying to get these partnerships sorted.”

As reported by The Northern Echo earlier this year, Durham stands to risk millions of pounds of future funding from the European Research Council (ERC) when the UK leaves the European Union. Since 2008, Durham has received £27 million from the ERC, which seeks to fund schemes that “cross disciplinary boundaries” and “address new and emerging fields.”

The comments of Tim Burt, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience), disputed these anxieties: “Over the last couple of decades there has been a steady growth of collaboration with other European universities…I think what we will be hoping is that we can remain parts of those sort of consortia even if we were outside the EU.”

“There are already European grants facilities for involving people form non-EU counties. One would hope that we would get some benefit from that because we’ve already got strong research links with various European universities. It is in nobody’s interests for that to finish, and I’m sure that where there are already strong partnerships, those will continue somehow or another.”

The town hall meeting also enabled Corbridge to speak about the type of Brexit Durham University will promote as a member of UUK (Universities UK) and the Russell Group: “We have been keen to suggest that students should not be included in the net migration figures in the UK and that we want to maintain as far as possible open borders, open recruitment for students and staff from all around the world.” Corbridge and the 23 Vice-Chancellors of the Russell Group are expected to have dinner with Home Secretary Amber Rudd this week to lobby this agenda in person.

It was acknowledged that the government has allayed some immediate uncertainty on the issue of tuition fees. EU students attending UK universities will continue to pay the same fees as ‘home’ UK based students for the full duration of their course, even if the course finishes after the UK has left the EU. This has been confirmed by the Student Loans Company. Coleridge remarked that “the government has (also) guaranteed that EU students applying to study in England in 2017/18 will continue to be eligible for tuition fee loans for the duration of their studies.”

Regarding the Erasmus+ exchange scheme, Coleridge admitted that its future was “rather less certain,” even if those “taking part this academic year, are not going to be affected by the referendum result.” Moreover, given the government’s commitment to reducing net-migration figures to the tens of thousands, the Vice-Chancellor considered it “naïve” to dismiss the possibility that changes would not be made to the status of non-EU international students. Recognising this, Janet Stewart, head of Durham’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures, stated that some of her staff were looking to affiliate with Open Britain to provide some political pressure on a grass-roots level.

A newly created Brexit steering group at Durham University will consider issues closer to home through a Brexit lens. It is anticipated that Durham University’s 2017-2027 Strategy, which underlines the plans to relocate Queen’s Campus and Ustinov College, will be signed off in December by the University Executive Council. “We need to know if our business model will be (sound) in the wake of triggering of article 50,” Corbridge said. It was also noted that further Brexit-orientated town halls would probably be held once a term to get a sense of such issues from the point of view of both staff and students.

 

Photograph: Durham University

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