The UK’s exit from the EU has brought into contention relationships that had found a – sometimes uneasy – working equilibrium since the Good Friday Agreement. It has placed fundamental uncertainties in the modalities not only between Ireland and Northern Ireland and between Ireland and the UK, but it will ultimately change that between Northern Ireland with the UK also.
Some of that uncertainty relates to North-South student interchange, academic mobility and research collaboration. It would be sad indeed if these were significantly disrupted by Brexit but, as these relationships endured during the darkest days of the Troubles, I believe it is unlikely.
Academia is unique in that many scholarly and research dialogues and collaboration remain unfettered by the regulatory regimes that affect businesses, allowing academics to forge working relationships across the globe. The UK will thus continue to maintain strong academic collaborations, as do other non-EU European countries, such as Norway and Switzerland.
Academia is unique in that many scholarly and research dialogues and collaboration remain unfettered by the regulatory regimes
Similarly, many Irish academics will maintain their strong links with the UK just as they have done with partners outside the EU, particularly in the USA.
However, realising direct Irish benefits from Brexit to higher education – by accruing to Ireland activities that would previously have gone to the UK – will require considerable investment, as a recent Royal Irish Academy report clearly shows. Given the intense competition from our European partners, that investment must fill major gaps left by the recent recession and then continue to be sustained.
Furthermore, any direct benefits of Brexit that may emerge could very easily be offset by other losses – for example, the loss of EU research funding currently secured through collaborative projects with UK researchers, and a reduced EU budget without UK contributions.
With the “wrong” kind of Brexit, dealing with a volatile Irish economy may become the biggest challenge directly and indirectly for higher education in Ireland. Brexit poses direct threats to the many sectors of the Irish economy that, to date, have largely served UK markets. New markets for Irish firms will take time to grow, with potential impacts in those particular sectors similar to the recent recession.
Any direct benefits of Brexit that may emerge could very easily be offset by other losses
This will place demands on higher education to adapt curriculums, particularly for career-focused higher education. It will also place different demands on students graduating from practice-based programmes, requiring them to be informed by a strong appreciation of many more different and diverse cultures, languages, tastes and business practices.
To have graduates with the high-level skills that will enable a small country on the edge of Europe to remain nimble – perhaps counterintuitively – it will remain important to avoid pressures to overly focus on short-term needs.
Immediately following the recessionary collapse of the Irish construction industry, fewer students pursued qualifications in many of its associated disciplines. Now, as construction has grown post-recession, the higher education resources available to meet renewed demand for graduates are more limited. Similar peaks and troughs will likely become a feature across different disciplines.
To ensure that Ireland’s higher education framework is designed to meet long-term strategic educational targets while being sufficiently responsive to manage short-term skill shortages, will require a long-term view of higher education investment that is not spooked by inevitable unpredictabilities in demand.
Never have flexible, broadly-skilled graduates been more essential for national agility and resistance. With the imminent passage of legislation to establish technological universities, perhaps one of the more significant post-Brexit consequences for higher education will be for those institutions to place even more emphasis on their graduates possessing demonstrable creativity, innovation, design thinking and the ability to apply research expertise. All these, now more than ever, must be built on sound understandings of the global and local perspectives of how industries really work.