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Our engagement in Europe: An Interview with Sean Hand

sean_hand_pvc_v3.jpgProfessor Seán Hand, Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Europe) gives us his perspective on how Warwick is a European facing university;

Why is it important that Warwick is active in Europe?

To remain a world-class institution in research and education, Warwick has to carry on leading, influencing, and collaborating with scholarship all around the world. We are an openly international community, committed to agenda-setting activity, student and staff mobility, and global perspectives. We compete and collaborate with the best in the world, and this makes us committed internationalists.

From the very beginning, Warwick has had this outward-facing attitude. Our curriculum and our campus were designed to incorporate the best of international trends, as part of a pioneering and forward-looking approach to knowledge. Foundation Professors came from different countries, from the beginning we absorbed international and interdisciplinary work into our curriculum, and we have always encouraged students to learn in other countries: for example, our Venice study base has existed for over fifty years. Today, Warwick’s teaching and research thrive in India, Australia, Africa, and the USA, as well as in Europe. On our main campus, we have over 9,000 non-UK students, and our alumni are spread out now across almost 200 different countries. We are in short a global intellectual community, and we are all the better and the stronger for it.

Europe naturally constitutes a major part of our international identity. Our universities emerged from the European intellectual tradition. So we are intensely engaged in the full range of academic activities in Europe. Over the past three years alone we have won almost £50 million for research from EU funds. Each year, as part of the enormously successful Erasmus scheme, we send out and receive hundreds of students who are able to broaden their study horizons in a specifically European context. We have an office presence in Brussels, at the heart of European decision-making, where we can showcase our work and develop collaborative relations. And we are a founding member of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.

I’d add that our European presence as a university is also of great benefit to our entire region, given the increasingly important region-to-region collaborations across Europe that will pursue solutions to common social, economic and logistical problems. Warwick has always been an engaged and involved university, working with industry, and other stakeholders and planners, to create impact and value through imaginative partnerships. It is therefore part of our very nature to be involved in all European developments and opportunities, whether directly or indirectly related to university work.

Has Brexit affected Warwick’s approach to European activities?

The UK’s involvement with Europe, at a political, economic and social level, is coloured, and frankly obscured, at the moment by the ongoing uncertainty produced by the referendum result. The more the ramifications of that decision are considered, the more we realize that many of our key associations are called into question. Whether it’s membership of the European Atomic Energy Community, or the Medicine Agency, or the Banking Authority, to name just a few, our academic research, influence and leadership can clearly become significantly affected if the United Kingdom does eventually leave the EU. The funding I have mentioned earlier is also no longer a given, and that would obviously have a major effect. This is before we even consider the principles of intellectual mobility, or the desire to maintain a truly internationalist ethos.

But, as I have indicated already, Warwick was active in Europe from its inception, and as part of our nature we intend to continue with the fullest external engagement, both via existing activities and through new collaborations and partnerships. This applies to Europe as much as to relations with the rest of the world. It is interesting to note, by the way, that the most recent recruitment statistics from UCAS show that applications to Warwick from prospective EU students have risen by over 10% on last year, while those from international non-EU students have risen by almost 11%. This says very clearly that we are regarded, Brexit or no Brexit, as a globally competitive and relevant university, both within the EU and around the world. So while Brexit is an important new context for our international presence, it does not define or even deflect our core determinations. Indeed, there is a sense in which the debates and calculations arising from Brexit have focused the mind on the importance of maintaining and developing a network of relations with our European colleagues.

So what are Warwick’s objectives in Europe for the coming year?

Warwick will develop strong institutional relations with a network of specific partners in Europe. We will do this not only to affirm our internationalist engagement, but also to protect our capability, funding, and reach, in a proactive manner. In addition, our partnership planning can certainly help preserve our staff and student mobility, but it will also help cultivate relationships with associated civic, economic and enterprise bodies right around Europe. We have already begun this level of planning with two European universities, Paris-Seine and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Their own international agendas, developmental plans, significant locations and wider network of relations have helped our discussions to be very focused and dynamic. We have already agreed on joint teaching, learning, research, funding and mobility actions, with multiple parts of each university, and there is a common willingness to make these partnerships increasingly broad and ambitious in scope.

The strength of these relationships comes from the fact that they are not only strongly supported by the executive level of the respective universities, but are also built from the bottom up through ongoing academic work and commitment. Similar networking with other European universities in key locations is being planned. Our long-term objective is to establish and support an institutional approach to our intellectual presence and partnerships in Europe. One especially interesting feature here is the degree to which we can collectively develop new networking arrangements that go beyond discrete bilateral operations. This is an aspiration that is being actively discussed right now within the European Commission. As an ambitious and internationalist university, with an established presence in Brussels, Warwick naturally wishes to be in the vanguard of such thoughts, and can assist their development.

There is no doubt that in the coming years there will be many more challenges and opportunities arising for our capability. Warwick was born out of a major national challenge, and arguably its energy and engagement were forged from that very shift. So whatever new circumstances affect our participation in European education, research and enterprise, I am certain that Warwick’s drive and credentials will make us an important actor in the construction of new and exciting solutions.