Building our network of European strategic partners

The University of Edinburgh has developed a series of European bilateral partnerships in the post-Brexit era.

By Fiona Murray

We are focused on deepening our existing relationships and diversifying our engagement as we remain committed to playing a strong role in European, education research and innovation collaborations.

Developing European bilateral partnerships

Towards the end of 2016, research metric-based analysis was undertaken with the aim of identifying and building strategic European partnerships for the post-Brexit era. Emphasis was placed on institutions with whom there was already much high-quality research collaboration, plentiful student exchanges, and a distinct potential for increased engagement.

This work informed the University’s current six European bilateral partnerships: The University of Amsterdam, University of Copenhagen, University College Dublin, University of Helsinki, KU Leuven and Leiden University.

Our selected partners also share membership of at least one of our valued European networks: LERU, Universitas 21, Coimbra Group, Unica or Eurolife giving us a promising indication of institutional strength, shared ideals and aspirations.

From Spring 2017, now Senior Vice Principal Professor Jonathan Seckl, Vice Principal International, Professor James Smith and the College Deans of Research led a series of exploratory visits and preliminary conversations to identify areas of collaborative research interest where we could mutually create ‘world-leading research endeavours’. A view was taken that mutual research excellence and opportunity should underpin these strategic partnerships.

Deepening existing relationships

Edinburgh’s approach has been to develop these six partnerships within a relatively flat framework. We have systematically identified these small number of ‘deep partners’ with whom we already have dense interactions with. For four of the six partners the University has committed funding to a number of European PhD Partnership scholarships for successful applicants to work on Joint Projects in specific discipline areas. The recruited students have supervisors from both Edinburgh and our partner university. The aim is to encourage our colleagues to work more closely together, share expertise and discover what opportunities lie for future joint projects with joint positions for doctoral candidates an excellent way to forge strong connections between researchers and research groups between universities.

For our two remaining partners, University of Amsterdam and University College Dublin, this works slightly differently with seed funding. The seed funding is available to encourage academics in the disciplinary areas to get together to establish joint projects.

We take a look at some of the activity which has taken place in recent years with our European partners:

University of Amsterdam (UvA)

Both UvA and Edinburgh have been long-term partners for some time now particularly in the area of student exchange. In October 2018, a Memorandum of Agreement was signed with both universities committing €90,000 over three years to support joint activities in Artificial Intelligence & law, logic & cognition and sustainability. These areas were selected due to mutual complementary strengths and the potential for research synergy.

Both universities continue to be enthused by the possibilities for joint working across a range of research threads.

University of Copenhagen (UCPH)

UCPH and Edinburgh also have a long-standing partnership through both the Erasmus programme and existing research collaborations. In November 2019, a UCHP delegation visited Edinburgh with a purpose of strengthening existing relations, identifying new areas of student and staff exchange options, and gaining new insights in relation to education. Both institutions see the potential for more collaboration within existing areas and joint projects for PhD students are currently being advertised in Social Data Science and Regenerative Medicine.

University College Dublin (UCD)

Joint funding from both universities has led to the development of the the Scottish Irish Migration Initiative and our new institutional commitment was confirmed in the signing of a Memorandum of Agreement between UCD and Edinburgh in 2019. The agreement deepens an already close partnership. Edinburgh has a good history of collaborative EU research projects with UCD – both in terms of number of projects and project value, and strong research outputs. With a high alumni base in Ireland, having an institutional partner in the nation’s capital provides access to new engagement mechanisms.

University of Helsinki (UH)

In 2019, UH and Edinburgh, signed a Memorandum of Agreement, which focuses on Human Genomics and Forestry Science. Both universities have a record of expertise and world-class research in these fields and have successfully recruited eight PhD positions in both disciplines. The agreement builds upon an existing relationship between researchers from Helsinki and Edinburgh Genomics – one of the leading genomics facilities in Europe. There is also collaboration between Finnish researchers and Edinburgh’s Centre for Sustainable Forests and Landscapes with the Centre addressing the major challenges in forest sustainability and landscape management.

KU Leuven

The University of Edinburgh is a partner on KU Leuven’s Global PhD Programme and has recruited PhD students to work on ten joint projects in Medical & Health Humanities, European Studies and Vascular Biology with a further ten funded by KU Leuven and offered across its research portfolio.

It is thanks to the strong engagement between the two universities, shared membership and frequent dialogue at LERU and U21 meetings that KU Leuven approached the University of Edinburgh to join the Una Europa network and our institutional partnership has gone from strength to strength since then.

Leiden University

Leiden and Edinburgh have a long record of collaborative research and teaching, particularly in the fields of medicine and infectious diseases. At the end of 2019, the Centre for Inflammation Research announced the opportunity for six PhD studentships fully funded for four years focussing on Joint Projects in Infectious Disease. The aim of the programme is to foster collaboration, to build on existing synergies and to see what opportunities present themselves from the combined research force in this area.

More recently, engagement between the African Studies Centre at Leiden and at Edinburgh has been gathering momentum. Edinburgh has an important and long historical connection with Africa. We are the largest centre of African studies in Europe, now combining forces with Leiden’s excellent scientific institute.

Each Centre has agreed to fund the development of 2-4 research themes over the next two years. The four PhD students will be supervised by academics both in Leiden and Edinburgh.

Recognising the strength of existing research collaboration, recruitment continues at both universities for PhD students to start in September 2021 on further joint projects in Science & Technology Studies and within the School of Physics & Astronomy.

Diversifying our engagement

The University of Edinburgh developed a series of European bilateral partners, building strong relationships through the uncertainty of Brexit. Some of these partnerships are developing more rapidly than others, and there is always the potential for further engagement. We are forging strategic partnerships built on complementary strengths and pushing the ambition of these partnerships with the hope that we can also work together to consider joint programmes, mobility at scale initiatives and collectively become world-leaders in key research areas.

Post-Brexit the context for our European engagement has changed, but Edinburgh remains as committed as ever to European collaboration, both through our strategic European partners and our interaction with other European universities, and will remain one of the most internationally collaborative research universities in the UK.

This commitment is clear in the University’s membership of Una Europa, a group of eight leading European research universities committed to long-term cooperation and integration between members. The alliance is focused on innovative research and teaching and boosting international study and research opportunities for its students and staff. Many of the lessons we are learning from our partnership with Una Europa can be applied to our European strategic partners, providing beautiful overlap for future joint projects.

In 2021, The University of Edinburgh continues to keep a focus on Europe, has invested in strategic European partnerships to deepen existing relationships and is diversifying our engagement and looks to the future with a strong vision of increasing innovative joint pathways through research, teaching and cultural collaborations.