Bridging Brexit: Cross-border Collaboration in Higher Education

—By Professor Malachy Ó Néill, Ulster University

As the UK’s exit from the EU plays out against the backdrop of COVID-19, cross-border collaboration in education and research provides no little solace in these anxious times.

Professor Malachy Ó Néill, Ulster University

Professor Malachy Ó Néill, Ulster University

Ní neart go cur le chéile” (‘there is no strength without unity’) was the message of EU President Donald Tusk after his meeting with then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in December 2017. Since then this adage has been adopted by communities the length and breadth of the island in the face of COVID-19. Ulster University’s track record in research collaboration and partnership programming in teaching is central to bridging Brexit.

As a civic university with a regional mission, our concerns about a potential No-Deal Brexit are many and varied. With two campuses in Greater Belfast (City centre and Jordanstown) and two in the North West (Coleraine and Magee) we have staff, researchers and students who cross the border daily to work, learn and collaborate. Brexit, therefore, has implications for every facet of our work, and nowhere more so than at the Magee campus situated just three miles from the UK-EU international frontier. 

Cross-border collaboration as a bridge forward                                 

Brexit has cast a menacing shadow for some time now, so how are we responding to the challenge?
We are members of a formal cross-border Further Education and Higher Education cluster with Letterkenny IT (LYIT), North West Regional College (NWRC), and Donegal Education and Training Board (ETB). The Irish Higher Education Authority (HEA) has supported this initiative since its foundation in 2018 and this North West FE-HE cluster is considered a key antidote to post-Brexit obstacles; its founding principle being enablement of learning pathways at tertiary level in response to current and future challenges for the North West region.

The success of the cluster is due in no small part to the foresight of the North West Strategic Growth Partnership (NWSGP), co-chaired by Derry City and Strabane District Council and Donegal County Council, and incorporating key stakeholders in education, research and industry. It has a unique inter-jurisdictional structure, endorsed by both governments through the North-South Ministerial Council, and it supports the global positioning of the region as a location for foreign direct investment (FDI).

This collaborative approach provides a strong foundation to tackle the challenges ahead, all parties engaging with local Chambers of Commerce to invest time in jointly understanding the issues arising from a North West perspective. The agreed objective is to pursue strategic plans that will enable economic growth and minimise the impact of Brexit, aligning our strategic approach so we achieve growth via the stewardship of education and a smart industry board.

Colleagues have remarked to me that they have never seen such a conscious effort to work together. Our attitude has shifted towards looking at how the border can become a bridge and a pathway for the benefit of students and employees on either side, aligning teaching and research programmes with industry requirements and government priorities.

We are exploring ways to make more cross-border collaboration happen through research and teaching activities. For example, increased employability in the FinTech sector has encouraged us to partner with NWRC on the sixth FinTru North West Financial Services Academy, offering 20 graduate training places in each iteration and with fantastic employment outcomes built in.

Together with LYIT we have developed and delivered a joint master’s provision for Innovation Management in the Public Sector, now in its fifteenth year, and new collaborations will include trans-jurisdictional taxation, export and enterprise. Data science is also a growth area in both Derry and Letterkenny and collaborative provisions in support of smart industries are a shared focus at present, and we look forward to identifying even more opportunities for collaboration.

Research is an international endeavour

Research partnerships, both local and global, are vital in creating world-leading centres of excellence which define a university city or region. While Ulster’s research income has doubled over the last four years through large-scale collaboration with other universities and industry partners, we have diversified our funding income mix, moving more towards UK research and innovation funded projects. EU research contracts are still highly significant to us, however, and we very much hope that UK universities can continue to participate in Horizon Europe beyond Brexit.

Collaborative networks continue to evolve and new projects emerge. The EpiCentre – a multi-million pounds technology partnership (established 2008) between LYIT, NWRC and Ulster’s Intelligent Systems Research Centre (ISRC) at Magee which provided practical support for electronics and engineering companies in the North West – has been a key enabler for new research centres which City Deal will deliver for Derry. The £38m Cognitive Analytics Research Lab (CARL) and the Centre for the Industrialisation and Digitisation of Robotics and Automation (CIDRA) also have critical roles to play. CARL will help businesses become world-leading in their use of artificial intelligence and data analytics while CIDRA will enable industry to unlock the powerful potential of automation and robotics, and up-skill staff.

Since 2014 we have engaged in over 90 projects with c.£35m in grant income and around half of these have involved cross-border collaboration. Exemplars include:
—the ‘Crossing Borders, Breaking Boundaries’ project to tackle discrimination;
—the North West Centre for Advanced Manufacturing;
—the Health Technology Hub;
—the Northern Ireland Centre for Stratified Medicine and the Centre for Personalised Medicine, a cross-border collaborative project involving 13 partner organisations.

Cross-border collaboration remains a key tenet of our research strategy, and healthcare innovation is particularly important in enhancing and defining the region. C-TRIC, the Clinical Translational Research and Innovation Centre at Altnagelvin, is now in its second decade and the further expansion of world-class personalised medicine research facilities via THRIVE (a new health research institute aligned to City Deal) alongside the School of Medicine opening at Magee in 2021 will further increase the attractiveness of the region as a place to study, live and work.

Since 2013 the Magee campus has been home to Ireland’s only Magnetoencephalography (MEG) facility, a £5.3m facility which measures brain activity. This research infrastructure enables Ulster academics to lead island-wide responses to the current pandemic, like Dr Magda Bucholc’s coordination of track and trace analytics, and Prof Tony Bjourson and Dr Victoria McGilligan who have just received significant COVID-specific research funding from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

The scale of collaboration in the North West will inevitably lead to more projects in areas such as health, intelligent systems, public sector policy, all priority areas for government both North and South. In this way the border will become a bridge and the unique trans-jurisdictional partnership of the NW cluster will enable placement opportunities and dual accreditation for graduates in the region.

Supporting students and staff around Brexit                               

Cross-border cooperation and student mobility are of crucial importance from an economic, social and cultural perspective. The UK Government in its white paper, The Future Relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, committed to ‘facilitating mobility for students and young people, enabling them to continue to benefit from world-leading universities’ once the UK leaves the EU. Universities UK (UUK), of which Ulster University is a member, is calling on the UK Government to use the upcoming Immigration Bill to ensure that future academic and student mobility is not impeded by unnecessary bureaucracy regardless of the immigration status of EU/EEA nationals after the UK has left the EU. Building and preserving that border bridge is pivotal.

Take Sophie Carlin, for example, a 19-year old student from Donegal. Sophie is doing a voluntary third-year placement at C-TRIC in Derry, supported by Optum Ireland as a Healthcare Scholar. Sophie drives across the border every day to take part in a world-class research project into childhood cancer with Dr Kyle Matchett. She wishes to pursue a career in cancer research. This is just one student but thinking of Sophie seamlessly traversing that border in her car every day, is an example of what good looks like. We work every day to make this region an attractive place to stay and pursue a career; student mobility needs to be protected at all costs.

Ulster University values co-operation with European partners and partners from across the world. We were pleased to see that the Irish Government’s Brexit Readiness Action Plan references schemes to allow continued participation in Erasmus+ for eligible students in Northern Ireland institutions. We are looking at how we can best support existing and future staff in terms of their ‘settled’ or ‘pre-settled status’. We want the government to ensure there are no barriers to attracting world-class staff or inhibitors to collaboration around research

Continued growth ‘in between’                                                            

Rather than on the periphery of both European and UK research and innovation centres, the collaborative approach of the North West city region has enabled this place to position itself as the bridge, the conduit through which inter-jurisdictional creative and learning pathways can prosper. In The Haw Lantern (1987) Séamus Heaney recalled growing up between two traditions and achieving equilibrium therein:

Two buckets were easier carried than one
I grew up in between.”

Ireland’s North West – its academic, industry and civic leaders – stand ready to embrace the opportunities that pertain as the bridge ‘in-between’. The most impactful research is achieved when experts from different institutions in different parts of the world work together. International and inter-jurisdictional cooperation must be protected and facilitated in a post-Brexit world as we all find our footing with the threat of COVID-19 still with us.

Research-led teaching is about the next generation of thinkers, developing a skilled workforce that will help local companies make an impact on the global stage. While challenges like Brexit and COVID-19 were unforeseen for many of us, new possibilities will arise as a result of them. The future is not yet written but let’s learn from our past and stay focused on a strategic, aligned and collaborative approach. Let’s bridge Brexit for a brighter future for us all. 

Ní neart go cur le chéile!




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