Five Flemish Universities Shared Their Concerns In An Open Letter

Opinion/Politics

23 January 2019
Article
Auteur(s): Ronald Tipan
Flemish universities are faced with unprecedented problems if the United Kingdom crashes out of the European Union.

Since the start of Horizon 2020, the EU framework program for research and development, KU Leuven has been working with British partners in 177 projects, representing a budget of 92.7 million euros. Of the 134 Horizon 2020 projects at UGent, 85 are with British partners. Twenty percent of the research at UAntwerpen takes place in collaboration with a British partner. UHasselt works on a regular basis with thirty academic partners in the UK. VUB researchers had 361 publications with the UK in the period 2014-2018.

Luc De Schepper (UHasselt), Caroline Pauwels (VUB), Luc Sels (KU Leuven), Rik Van de Walle (UGent) and Herman Van Goethem (UAntwerp)

(Translated Dutch article from Veto)

In an open letter from five Flemish university rectors (UHasselt, VUB, KU Leuven, UGent, and UAntwerp), they expressed their concerns about the forthcoming British departure from the European Union. A hard Brexit is expected to end existing academic cooperation between the EU and the UK.

The United Kingdom is heading towards a 'No Deal' scenario. At last week’s ‘meaningful vote’, Prime Minister Theresa May suffered a heavy defeat, including from her own party, of her current Brexit deal by 230 votes. Her defeat also caused a 'no confidence' vote in the parliament of which she survived. The world is watching the Brexit development in the UK as May turned her focus on a Plan B to avoid crashing out on the EU. 

As the UK parliament figures out a viable solution to Brexit, the alarm bells in the Flemish rectorates are starting to sound even louder because KU Leuven has strong ties with a few prestigious British institutions. The KU Leuven, in particular, involves three-quarters of its projects with British researchers and problems would arise in regard to financing without a Brexit agreement. These collaborations are particularly important to natural sciences projects, where approximately 61% of Flemish publications in this sector stem from partnerships with British institutions.

The rectors, therefore, called on the Belgian authorities 'to be very vigilant in shaping the future partnership with the UK, whatever form it may take'. The universities are particularly cautious to new barriers that might be 'detrimental to the excellence level of British and Flemish universities' and 'to reduce Europe's attraction as a preferential knowledge partner'.

However, students are especially at a disadvantage if the UK crash out of the EU. Flemish Minister-President Geert Bourgeois warned last week that their access to British universities, for example via Erasmus, could be severely hampered. Currently, there are currently 581 Flemish students studying in the United Kingdom. There are still a lot of uncertainties in terms of what would happen to the students after a British departure from the Union, which also applies to the 230 British students at KU Leuven.

The universities are already calling on the governments to take action: 'As universities, we ask the federal and Flemish governments to take the lead in safeguarding the existing financing mechanisms for academic cooperation or, if this is not possible, for whatever reason, opportunities to provide for full alternative mechanisms. It would be a tragedy for all parties involved if the British leave not only the European Union but also Europe.