UM Blog

World Insight: Brexit – a bad day for Europe, but knowledge must always cross borders

June 24th, 2016 by

According to Martin Paul the Brexit is a step back for Europe, but not the end of the world. The biggest threat is falling back to a form of “European Kleinstaaterei”. It is up to universities to build bridges and keep the European academic space alive.

Now we know it, the Brexit is a fact. It sadly shows what populism can do, not only in the UK. I am not a betting man, but I had expected that the United Kingdom would narrowly vote in favor of remaining in the EU. Many things will change in the long run, but what will be the effect on European academia?

Opponents of the Brexit regularly wrote in the last few weeks that a Brexit would mean the United Kingdom could no longer apply for European grants such as those from the ERC and Horizon 2020. Actually I do not expect that this will be a major issue.

Take a look at Switzerland. It is not a member of the EU but it does participate in the European funding programmes. Admitted, in 2014 Switzerland did not receive any EU funds for a period of six months because a small majority of the Swiss voted in a referendum (!) against the influx of migrants from EU countries. After a period of six months though, the EU and Switzerland reached new agreements and things went back to the way they were.

Furthermore, Switzerland only participates to a limited extent with the EU funding for science. Similar arrangements will also apply to the United Kingdom. But is that the end the world? No.

A more serious consequence is that the Brexit will limit the mobility of researchers, educators and students. The United Kingdom will join the ranks of other countries such as Switzerland, the United States or Russia. This may also not be a huge problem.

What I am more concerned about is that the common European academic landscape is coming under threat. Up until now it always felt that the EU was our “academic homeland”: it didn’t matter where you come from, it’s has been a united Europe for our world. I predict that a referendum under British academics would have resulted in a big win for the anti-Brexit forces. But others have dominated the vote and I am concerned that it could be just the beginning: other countries may follow.  Euroscepticism is running high in France, the Netherlands and increasingly even in Germany and eurocritical politicians are already demanding similar referenda on Europe. And before we know it we could have Europe back as a continent with many smallish countries, which do less and less together, reminding me of the German historical situation of Kleinstaaterei (territorial fragmentation). Up until 1871, Germany was a patchwork quilt of small states and cities, each of which realised its own policy. It was only when these small states and cities united, Germany became an empire and the country could develop into a major political and economic power.

The Brexit and its possible domino effect could weaken Europe as a whole. Not only economically, but also as an academic powerhouse.  My view on this is a variant of Charles Darwin’s quote: it is not the strongest species that will survive, but the most collaborative. With an exit from a common European academic ecosystem  we could end up no longer building on each other’s academic strengths, if we simply all are thrown back into our own country politics then we will find it more difficult to be visible. And that is not a good perspective. Because the real competition will be coming from India, from China and other emerging countries where strong academic structures are developing with great speed. This will have an impact on international mobility of students and researchers. As an example, large international campuses are currently developed in China, also to attract European students in the future, leading to a potential reversal of student mobility and even a potential brain drain from Europe.

So what is the consequence for academia of all this – keep calm, collaborate and try to ignore the borders, that is my solution. This is not a new concept. For decades Europe has built scientific structures that have successfully worked with a whole range of countries. Take, for example, CERN on the border of Switzerland (!) and France. There, thousands of researchers from more than eighty countries peacefully work together. A Dutch researcher once playfully suggested that CERN would definitely qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize. I think that is not such a silly idea. Perhaps as a response to the Brexit, researchers and students could strengthen their collaborations and demonstrate that we achieve far more together than we could achieve individually. And we need to form strong university networks of like-minded institutions. My own university recently has been co-founding YERUN, a network of young European research universities who have been brought together by partnering based on the results of THE’s ranking of universities younger than 50 years. And we are a member of WUN, a global network of research universities, with several British partners. These networks have their own governance and can work together as a coalition of the willing, keeping collaboration and exchange alive, even in times of increased nationalistic tendencies.
And in the case of Great Britain, let´s not panic. It is not a ship that now lifts its anchors and sails away. The British Isles will remain there, a few kilometers from the coast of France and whatever the British Eurocritics say, Europe and the UK will continue to have to deal with each other. Yes, with the Brexit, some bridges to Europe have been torn down: it is our task as universities to build new ones.

Martin Paul is president of Maastricht University.

World Insight: Internationalisation should start in our backyard

March 31st, 2016 by

Academics often think ‘global’ is the opposite of ‘regional’, and that isn’t so, says Martin Paul

Let’s do an experiment. Go to Google Maps and place a dot at the location of your university or institute. In my case that is Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Now draw a radius of 100 kilometres (62 miles) using the option “measure distance” from the context menu. If you keep hold of the line, you can draw a circle. If I do that, I reach Brussels in Belgium in the west, Nijmegen in the Netherlands in the north, Cologne and Dusseldorf in Germany in the east and Bastogne in the south – just in Belgium, close to Luxembourg.

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World Insight: The use of English in universities will not kill off Dutch

February 15th, 2016 by

The end is near – at least the end of the Dutch language – if we are to believe some of the discussions taking place in the Netherlands.

In the true spirit of internationalisation, many Dutch universities offer a lot of their programmes in English; my university in Maastricht has actually had this policy for 20 years. In some circles, this is seen as a huge threat.

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The pleasures of a failing city

January 11th, 2016 by

Brandenburger Tor Berlin is a fun place. Several of my friends and colleagues have visited it during the last weeks and months. And they were not alone. In 2015, a record number of more than 12 million tourists visited Berlin, most of them staying for a few days. Why has the city become so attractive?
First of all, it is a cultural hotspot. It has three opera houses, four major symphony orchestras, more museums than New York and countless hip clubs for younger generations. Secondly, the history of the city is very interesting. It has been the stage for some of the most pivotal historic events, especially during the last century: the roaring twenties, the Third Reich and the country’s separation during the Cold War. And last but not least, Berlin has become a very innovative and offbeat place.

Yes, Berlin is fresh and attractive – at least for tourists. But if you live there, Berlin can be a different place. As the New York Times has recently pointed out, the administrative structure of the city has become less and less functional and in some cases it is even failing. This is caused by several factors, but it can, to a large extent, be attributed to a combination of financial decline and a lack of political leadership.
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Finding Refugee: Stories from the Netherlands

December 9th, 2015 by

Maastricht, Netherlands is hosting 600 refugees, in a camp that used to be Netherlands first prison built on the basis of the Prisoners Act, focusing on rehabilitation. A grey building, located behind a tall brick wall with steel window frames. Inside the building the atmosphere is tense, the air clogged. Two little girls run towards me as I walk in, one of them try to hide behind me while the other runs around me holding a plastic cameleon. She tries to scare her friend with the toy. I wonder if they are aware of how illustrative this fear is to their lives. I walk further in to meet Nour.

Nour fled the Syrian war and is now living in the refugee camp. He has kindly agreed to meet to speak about his journey, and give me certain insights. “My parents are in Germany, they walked from Greece” Looking straight at me, he continues. “I am not from a poor family, I am sick of people feeling sorry for me just because I am a refugee” . He takes a break as if he is looking for words. ¨ I am not just a number¨.

Nour was the second best student in his class at University of Aleppo, the largest city in Syria. A place where an ongoing military confrontation is taking place between the Free Syrian Army, Islamic Front, People’s Defence Units and Sunni militants against the Syrian government, Hezbollah and Shiite militants since 2012.” There is nothing left in Aleppo” he explains when I ask if he misses his hometown. We pass the small prison dorms as we walk through the narrow hallway.  “Families live in some of these rooms, several people in one room”. We take the elevator up to the top floor. When we reach the top I have trouble breathing.  “We have asked to open these windows, but unfortunately we are not permitted to do so”  Nour explains pointing towards the window frame in the dark hallway.

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Letters to the dark side

December 7th, 2015 by

In a time where religious motives seem to form a base for terror, I was deeply touched by the virgil of peace organised by Maastricht University’s student chaplaincy. Several days after the attacks in Paris, Christians, Jews and Muslims gathered here to pray for peace. It formed a stark contrast with the images that I would see on German television later that night. The number of Germans that has joined the PEGIDA movement, a movement that blames the increased security threat on Islam in general and Syrian refugees in particular, is steadily growing.

This appears to be a common theme in many countries. In the US, for example, several Republican politicians have argued that the Islamic religion itself provides a basis for terrorism; they specifically point to the threat posed by Syrian refugees. As a result, 25 governors of US states –that’s half of all of the states in the country- have refused to accept Syrian refugees.
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Limburg Esperanto

October 29th, 2015 by

Martin Paul-blog 2We occasionally receive letters here at Maastricht University telling us we are ruining the Dutch language by only offering education in English. They do not actually have the facts straight: we are a bilingual university with an ‘English unless policy’, which means the language of instruction is English unless there is a good reason for it to be Dutch. This is why some of our most popular programmes, such as Medicine, Arts and Culture and Dutch Law, are taught in Dutch. We also encourage international students to learn Dutch by offering all first-year students a free introduction course. 85% of our international students make use of this opportunity. Why? Because they want to integrate into Dutch society and get a taste of the Dutch and Limburg culture.

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Chapeau STW! Nu de anderen nog….

June 17th, 2015 by

Enige tijd gelegen berichtte ik over de voorwaarden die subsidiegevers stellen ten aanzien van intellectueel eigendom (IE). Zo bedacht STW in het verleden om een deel van de rechten te claimen van een product dat mede door hun financiële steun naar de markt gebracht was. Mijn bezwaar, en dat van mijn beroepscollega’s in den lande, was dat universiteiten verantwoordelijk zijn voor valorisatie en derhalve de lasten van valorisatie te dragen, maar ook de baten ervan te krijgen. Hiermee kan dan weer nieuw onderzoek gedaan en gevaloriseerd worden. Naast onderzoeksfinanciering is er ook voor valorisatie veel geld nodig: het vertalen van science naar business gaat namelijk niet vanzelf, daar moet je als universiteit iets voor doen! Dat gebeurt meestal binnen een technology transfer office (TTO).
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Kein Schlussstrich

May 6th, 2015 by

Martin Paul-blog 2In the past few days, we’ve commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Seventy years! We used to call that a lifetime. While most of us were born after the war, that same war has affected our lives in one way or another, even though we may not realise it.

Knowing what atrocities took place during the German occupation of the Netherlands, with all the terrible consequences, I sometimes find it unreal that we now live in peace in this part of Europe—and that we do so in mutual respect, with a strong bond of friendship that has again emerged between the Netherlands and Germany. Read the rest of this entry »