Why Brexit will hit academia hard, by Cliff Hague

Why are universities and younger people so upset about the vote to take us out of the European Union? During the referendum campaign I don't recall hearing much about INTERREG or ERASMUS+, yet these EU programmes have been integral to the lives of researchers and students for years.

Cliff Hague
Cliff Hague

With so much uncertainty surrounding the eventual terms of exit, these funding streams may remain important, but for now they look likely to be put in cold storage.

Funding for student movement between European higher education institutions began over 30 years ago. Students from Heriot-Watt's planning school, where I previously taught, spent time studying programmes in Arhus, Dublin and Berlin. Even those who did not travel themselves benefitted from having peers from these places study alongside them in Edinburgh. Yes, there were occasional problems along the way, but in my experience these EU-supported programmes were a great investment.

They continue today and have been extended to all young Europeans, not just those in higher education. In August I will be going to Oslo for the final meeting of one such ERASMUS+ project, Young Eyes. It has involved young people from four towns in peripheral and rural regions of Poland, Latvia and Sweden, as well as volunteers from Planning Aid Scotland.

Over 18 months, each group met their local politicians, explored their town's identity, did some work on place branding and co-designed a local action plan, which they presented to their local council. They also met internationally four times - a particularly valuable experience for teenagers from small towns. It's no surprise that those who take part in such projects become enthusiastic Europeans.

UK academics have also been extensively involved in European research programmes. When I left Heriot-Watt ten years ago I was leading European projects worth about EUR800,000 and was the UK contact point for a regional development research programme called ESPON. This helped universities and the Royal Town Planning Institute to win research work with a combined value that substantially exceeded the amount put into the programme by the UK. The Department of Communities and Local Government has not even appointed a contact point for the current programme.

I was also involved in INTERREG, which promotes valuable knowledge-sharing between local authorities around topics such as sustainable development, transport, tourism or business development, through which match funding from the EU has helped councils improve delivery of local services. If the UK government is serious about tackling the divides that the referendum has highlighted, it should create a similar match-funded programme to support UK councils and community groups in working together to address common challenges.

Cliff Hague OBE is a freelance consultant and researcher. www.cliffhague.com.

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