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Collaboration after Brexit: Leiden PhD candidates to Oxford

Will British universities become isolated after Brexit? The University of Oxford has set up a new programme for excellent young researchers to try to prevent that happening. Two Leiden PhD candidates are taking part. 'We have lost a lot of the citizens of Europe.'

It is an enormous honour for a scientist to be invited to dine in one of the beautiful dining rooms at the University of Oxford. This dream recently came true for Leiden PhD candidates Bernard Bernards (Public Administration) and Frederik Behre (European Law). In January they were given a warm welcome by the oldest university in the UK.  

Excellent PhD candidates

The reason for their visit: they are taking part in the new Europaeum Scholars Programme, a two-year programme for thirty excellent PhD candidates from 13 different leading European universities. The thirty candidates - who were each chosen after a tough selection procedure - will have lectures by prominent players in European politics, eminent scientists and leading government officials and will visit EU institutions. They will work in small project groups on current societal issues, such as human trafficking, youth unemployment and regional dependence movements. 

'It's an excellent opportunity to get out of the ivory tower.'

‘This programme was initiated by the University of Oxford after the Brexit referendum,' participant Bernard Bernards explains. ‘European universities currently  have many partnerships in such areas as research and the exchange of students, lecturers and scientists. British universities are afraid that after Brexit they will no longer be able to take part in these collaborations. The Europaeum Scholars Programme is a way of maintaining this collaboration, even after the UK has formally split from the EU.' 

Four recommendations

Bernards decided to sign up for the programme when Assistant Professor Rik de Ruiter and Professor Bernard Steunenberg pointed it out to him. He collected two recommendations from the academic world and two from friends. He also had to explain what 'public values' mean to him. He obviously produced a convincing essay because he was one of the very few to be chosen from the 146 'highly qualified' applicants.

‘I see it as a great opportunity to get out of the academic ivory tower,' commented Bernards, who is conducting PhD research on community care teams in The Hague. 'My PhD research has some practical aspects but it is primarily an academic quest. This programme forces you to think in very practical terms. You work  together with ambitious young researchers from different disciplines, looking for concrete solutions for social problems that policymakers are faced with on a daily basis. I'm convinced that it will make me a better scientist.' 

Bernard Bernards (right) in Oxford.

Coming to Leiden

Over the coming two years the thirty participants will spend time at different European universities that are part of the Europaeum Scholars Programme. The kick-off in Oxford will be followed by Prague and Geneva. In the autumn of 2018 the PhD candidates will come to Leiden to learn more about research methods. The programme will end in 2019 where it started: in Oxford, where the different sub-groups will present their  research. 

‘I've always had a lot to do with the European Union,'  Frederik Behre, the other Leiden participant, explains. He works at the Europa Institute, where he is exploring whether the EU could also function as a fiscal union. ‘I did an Erasmus exchange, for example, in Finland and it's an enormous plus that thanks to the EU I don't have to pay roaming costs when I'm travelling abroad. My grandparents suffered terribly in Germany during the Second World War, and I'm convinced that the only way to prevent that kind of disaster happening again is by ensuring we have good cooperation throughout Europe.’

Lost citizens 

At the same time, Behre sees that people around him do not share his enthusiasm for the Europe project. 'They don't see the same advantages that I see, even though it's to their advantage for the EU as a whole to have trade treaties with the big players like the US or China, or that their human rights are protected not only at national, but also at European level. In spite of all these advantages, it has still proved difficult to promote the European Union. We lost a large proportion of the citizens of the member states along the way.'  

'Other people don't see the same advantages of the EU that I see.' 

Over the coming two years Behre and his project group will tackle a current issue in the area of the legitimacy and accountability of the European Union. He doesn't know yet exactly what the research question will be. 'But that's what's so great about the Europaeum Scholars Programme. We try to find an overlap between our different backgrounds, and you can learn such a lot from that. I'll definitely be broadening my horizons in the coming years.’

Main image: Frederik Behre (right) in discussion with other participants.

International cooperation

Leiden University was one of the first members of Europaeum, an association of twelve leading European universities whose aim is to promote greater cooperation in research and teaching. Read more about international collaborations at Leiden University.

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