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Post Brexit Opportunities for Research and Teaching in Finland

Unmitigated disaster or once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? In the last last 70 years, there has been little as divisive in British politics as the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. An uncertain future for the UK is making many people look further afield for places to work and study. With the UK poised to potentially lose access to EU sources of funding for research, could Finland offer a better option for research and teaching talents?

Tampere is the largest inland city in the Nordic region, with over 505 000 inhabitants living within its administrative area. With a long and productive industrial heritage, Tampere attracts the brightest and the best from all over the world, and is the fastest growing city region in Finland with a projected increase in population of 23% by 2030. Nowadays, Tampere is a vibrant university city, with the three local universities catering for some 30 000 students. Many of whom are attracted by free university education for EU students, and the many grants available to international students. In the future, Tampere University of Technology, University of Tampere, and Tampere University of Applied Sciences will merge to form one new university for Tampere that will offer the best in “interdisciplinary research on the economy, technology, health and society.”

I spoke with two Brits (a student and a professor) who are living and working in Tampere and asked them about their feelings on a post-Brexit Tampere.

Brexit: A National Embarrassment for the UK

Lauren Stevens is a postgraduate student at the University of Tampere. We met to conduct our interview in Living Room on Hämeenkatu. As I walked in, I was warmly greeted in English by the barman. Is this another sign of the internationalisation of Tampere?, I wonder to myself. I asked Lauren where she stood on Brexit. I couldn’t help but notice the slight hesitant, almost apologetic, tone to her answer when she said she was pro-remain. She admitted that there hadn’t been any major immediate impacts for her personally since the referendum result, but felt very embarrassed by the result. “People keep asking me about Brexit, and how we could have reached such a result in the referendum. I don’t think I can answer them.”, she admitted.

Embarrassment seems to be a common theme with Brits I speak to in Tampere. It could be just the circles I move in, but I have yet to meet a pro-leave British immigrant in Finland. Rebecca Boden is a professor and Director of the New Social Research Programme at the University of Tampere. As we met over coffee at a small cafe at Tampere train station, the mood was light and jovial. However, it quickly became apparent that Rebecca was very passionate about the potentially serious effects of Brexit; or what she calls the “single biggest disaster for British politics in one hundred years”.

Talent mobility between the UK and Finland

Rebecca’s greatest concern regarding Brexit and Tampere is talent mobility. Currently, Tampere is an attractive city for British students to study in; with easy physical and political access, many courses taught in (very good) English and low or non-existent fees. However, post-Brexit British student might be subject to higher fees. Lauren agrees and freely admits that high tuition fees in the UK played a major role in her decision to study her masters abroad. She laments that there is not a greater tradition of student mobility in British university culture. She sees the British market as a potential source for universities in Tampere. However, she feels that when the UK leaves the EU, Finland's recent introduction of tuition fees for non-EU students may put off British students. “In my own case, if I had to apply for a scholarship to study here I doubt I would have got it, and it definitely would have put me off applying. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t be here.”, she admitted.

In her own sector, Rebecca has noticed that mobility has become increasingly more important for staff, with many professors being encouraged to have a “period of mobility” at a foreign institution. “The great thing about this is that it benefits more than an individual. Staff gain skills and experiences that they might not otherwise get, and then bring them back to their institution”. When I asked about the benefits to universities in Tampere, Rebecca expressed concern at how unfair it is that institutions in Tampere will be denied opportunities in the UK through no fault of their own. “Because of the size of the British economy, Brexit denies other member states the opportunity to have their workers get upskilled, trained, and experienced, working in a big major economy, and also denies or reduces the chances of British workers from the UK doing the same in Tampere.”

Funding for Finland

Perhaps it is due to her keen academic mind seeing both sides of the situation, but Rebecca has identified some potential in Brexit for Tampere universities. “With Britain withdrawing from the EU, it will no longer have access to certain EU funding programs such as Horizon 2020 and Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions [a research training and career development fund focused on innovation skills]. This could potentially mean that Finnish institutions have a greater chance of obtaining funding without having to compete with the likes of Oxford and Cambridge”. It’s an interesting thought. Rebecca believes that universities could see an up-swing in international talents attracted to Tampere universities following the “immense act of self harm that the UK is inflicting upon itself”, as institutions benefit from funding that the UK will no longer have access to.

Rebecca has come to Finland since the referendum, and admits that the result affected her decision to come. “There are a lot of very well-educated and highly skilled people living in the UK who would like to leave.”, she advised. “The universities in Tampere could actively seek out and recruit those highly skilled Brexit refugees, and increase their international talents.”

Lauren is slightly less optimistic about Brits being attracted to work in Finland, post-Brexit. “A colleague of mine joked about my eligibility to work here after Brexit. It was only light banter, but there is uncertainty about being a non-EU citizen and finding work. At the moment, nobody seems to know what’s going to happen to us, and I think that will put people off coming to work here. That may become a barrier for local businesses attracting international talents from the UK in the future.”

The future for Tampere, post Brexit

The uncertainty around Brexit seems to weigh heavily on the mind for both Lauren and Rebecca. I asked them about their future plans. For Rebecca (who is close to retirement age), Tampere is becoming an increasingly attractive place to settle. “Brexit has shown Britain to be a not very nice place to be at the moment, to be honest. And with great free public services and high standard of living in Finland, it’s looking like an increasingly nice place to be…. I’m learning the language!” Lauren’s plans are to settle long term in Tampere. When I mentioned her recent engagement, she very quickly joked that Brexit was not the only reason she got engaged to a Finn. “Brexit definitely wasn’t the main reason we got engaged, but it was one of many reasons. I would say somewhere near the bottom of the list, but still, it did play a part. With equal marriage in Finland, Brexit in the UK, and many personal reasons, now just felt like the right time for us. Long term, if and when we decide to have a family, I think Finland is the better place to raise kids.”

With the uncertainty surrounding Brexit it’s difficult to plan ahead. Some view it as an immense act of self harm that will only have negative impacts for the UK. Very few seem to realise there may be effects felt locally in Tampere. It seems that many highly educated and skilled individuals living in the UK might be attracted to Tampere to escape funding losses, potentially tighter immigration policies, and economic uncertainty. These so called ‘Brexit refugees’ could find security and stability in the vibrant and growing city of Tampere.

- Title photo by Laura Vanzo / Visit Tampere