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Concern over NI HE’s post-Brexit future runs high

Though much of the discussion surrounding the UK’s referendum vote to leave the EU has centred on the consequences for England and Scotland, the challenges faced by Northern Ireland’s higher education sector post-Brexit could be even greater, a senior academic has said.

Deirdre Heenan told delegates at the Wonkhe event: "“We are fighting the image of higher education in ivory towers." Photo: The PIE News.

“We are major catalysts for regeneration… without support we’ll have to scale that work back"

Speaking at Wonkhe‘s #BrHExit event in London yesterday, Deirdre Heenan, provost of Ulster University‘s Coleraine and Magee campuses, said concern in the HE sector over the uncertainty caused by the Brexit vote is high.

At the moment it’s too early to tell exactly how Brexit will impact Northern Ireland, but universities will suffer if access to funding and collaboration with EU institutions is restricted, she said, and stakeholders are also wary of the potential political fallout.

“We do punch above our weight but it is all about collaboration for us”

Foreign direct investment is crucial to the country’s education offering, and collaborations with institutions in other countries – notably the Republic of Ireland – help universities finance expensive infrastructure that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to, she said.

“We do punch above our weight but it is all about collaboration for us,” she commented.

Research funding is also under threat – as it is across the UK – and if access to Horizon 2020 is revoked, there has been no guarantee about how the funding could be replaced.

High levels of deprivation and low labour productivity could amplify the impact of Brexit in NI, Heenan said.

“We are major catalysts for regeneration… without support we’ll have to scale that work back,” she noted, adding that Northern Ireland is the only state in the UK that is defunding higher education, having become a “soft target” for funding cuts: “We are fighting the image of higher education in ivory towers.”

Meanwhile, uncertainty about the relationship between the two Irish states is extremely troubling, she said, given that the peace agreement was forged in the context of both being part of the European Union.

Republican party Sinn Fein has suggested the vote could reopen the discussion on reunification of Ireland; meanwhile, although Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, its largest political party, the DUP, campaigned to leave – both of which create tension in an already uneasy coalition government.

And while UK Prime Minister Theresa May has promised not to introduce a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the ROI, Heenan said that in the HE community, “We don’t think that’s her promise to make.” Other European countries may consider this a necessity and have indicated they aren’t willing to give the UK an easy ride as it negotiates its relationship with the union, she said.

Ultimately, it is the uncertainty of what Brexit means for Northern Ireland that is most damaging at the moment, emphasised Heenan.

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