When I started my academic career in 1982 as a lecturer at the New University of Ulster in Coleraine, little did I know that Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) would not only do what was unthinkable then and enter government with Sinn Féin in 2007, but that the DUP would come to define the UK’s relationship with the EU.
In order to complete phase one of the UK’s exit negotiations with the EU in early December, the British government was forced to assuage the DUP by committing to a regulatory arrangement that would not isolate Northern Ireland in the Brexit process. This will square the circle in an as yet unknown way to achieve regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the Republic, while having no regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
There is still a long way to go with these negotiations and nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. But the UK’s universities, which through Universities UK argued strongly against leaving the EU during the referendum campaigns, are now hopeful that the many EU nationals working in our institutions can remain in the UK indefinitely and that UK students and academics will continue to be able to participate in the incredibly valuable Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ programmes until their end dates.
Universities UK is now pressing for EU nationals’ rights to be enshrined into UK law as soon as possible, and for no changes to be made to EU students’ fee status or eligibility for loans and grants for 2019/20 entrants and throughout any transition period. Longer term, it is essential that UK universities have access to Framework Programme Nine, an immigration system that supports our ability to attract excellent staff with minimal barriers, and greater support to facilitate student and staff mobility.
While on the whole, Brexit is not something that British universities welcome or feel is in the UK’s interests, the insistence of both the DUP and the Irish government that there will be no hard borders within Ireland or between Northern Ireland and Great Britain may well herald a new era of collaboration between British and Irish universities.
We already exchange large numbers of students, employ many nationals from each other’s countries, and work together on many collaborative EU-funded research programmes. As the UK’s Brexiteers wax lyrically about the new international relationships across the globe that a UK outside the EU can forge, one of the deepest may well become a renewed relationship between the universities of Britain and Ireland, thanks to geographical proximity, a common language, economic ties, cultural affinities and the Good Friday Agreement.