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Brexit a 'major threat' to university research

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Prof Julia Buckingham CBE – Brunel University London’s Vice-Chancellor and President, and President of Universities UK – gave a vice-chancellor’s oration at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, earlier this month. Tim Dodd, higher education editor of the broadsheet newspaper The Australian, reported on the oration in the following article, originally published on Tuesday 12 November and reproduced here with permission of the author.

Brexit is a major threat to British research capacity, according to the president of Universities UK, Julia Buckingham, who spoke at Edith Cowan University last week.

In a vice-chancellor’s oration at the university, she said UK universities, and the country as a whole, had built powerful research links with Europe over the past 30 years, with Britain often leading the way.

“Last year UK universities secured £1.5bn in grant income from the EU, rather more than the £900m ($1.69bn) contribution the UK makes to the EU research pot. And that says something for our research capabilities,” said Professor Buckingham, who is vice-chancellor of Brunel University.

“It is no exaggeration to say that Brexit is a major threat to the UK’s research base and that Brexit is at the top, or very near the top, of most university’s risk registers.”

She said that, at Brunel University, about a third of research grant income came from Europe, with 15 per cent of academic staff and 18 per cent of postdoctoral researchers from Europe.

British universities had been making their case “firmly and repeatedly” over the past four years for maintaining strong links with the EU.

“There is enormous goodwill between the key players in the UK and EU to find a way forward, albeit in a changed environment,” she said in the address at ECU, where she was invited by vice-chancellor Steve Chapman.

On the upside, Professor Buckingham said the British government’s plan to significantly boost investment in R&D was a positive sign.

In an interview with The Australian, she said British universities were viewed as an integral part of the country’s strategy to drive increased productivity.

“The government’s ambition is to increase investment in R&D from our current 1.67 per cent of GDP up to 2.4 per cent by 2027. That is based on a belief and understanding that strong research will be translated into economic benefit,” she said.

“We expect much of the money to come from businesses through increased R&D in businesses, but also direct investment from government to increase research activities.”

This investment is expected to have a major impact on employment, with an estimated 170,000 extra research sector jobs being created. However, she acknowledged the uncertainty around the R&D plan due to next month’s British election.

Professor Buckingham said that as well as research directly linked to economic productivity it was also important to invest in game-changing fundamental research that would “enable us to take things forward in the so-called fourth industrial revolution”.

“My gut feeling is that it will be the really fundamental research, the discovery of the totally unexpected, that will transform how we do things,” Professor Buckingham said.

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