High quality education and research needs bilateral cooperation: and that’s what North Sea Neighbours are for

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented challenges in the field of education & science for the Netherlands and the UK. Brexit has also created changes. Adding global issues such as climate change, flooding and water scarcity, and the increased need for food security   to the mix, and the importance of international partnerships is evident. This summer, Laura van Voorst Vader started as the Education and Science Attaché at the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in London.

What does an Education & Science Attaché do at the Embassy?

“In this day and age, it is impossible to have high quality education and research without looking across borders. It is all about joining forces with students, teachers and institutions from different countries. As Education and Science Attaché, it is my role to strengthen the relationship between the UK and the Netherlands in these fields. How? My aim is to increase visibility, exchanges, and sustainable collaboration. By stimulating and facilitating partnerships between educational and research institutions from both countries. A great example of such a partnership is the York-Maastricht Partnership. In this best practice, both universities invest €3m over three years to support dynamic research between the two institutions, and create interdisciplinary and international joint educational programs. From a personal experience, I know that collaborative learning across national and cultural boundaries is of great value to students. Not only for increasing academic skills and knowledge, but also for personal development.”

Image: ©Laura van Voorst Vader / Laura van Voorst Vader

How does Brexit impact the possibilities for student mobility between the UK and the Netherlands?

“Student exchange between the UK and the Netherlands has always been very popular. For example, in 2018 3,600 Dutch students started a degree in the UK, and 3,300 British students started a degree in the Netherlands. And in the same year, more than 3,500 students were exchanged between the UK and Netherlands via the Erasmus exchange programme. Brexit may reduce the number of these exchanges, as the UK decided not to take part in the new Erasmus+ program. The Turing scheme, which the UK designed to replace Erasmus+, focusses only on outward student mobility without reciprocity. Additionally, from the first of January onwards, the tuition fees increased significantly for Dutch and EU students who want to get a degree in the UK. I hope that by promoting active dialogue between both countries and the relevant institutions the effect of these measures on both the quantity and quality of student exchange can be mitigated.”

Is Brexit also affecting scientists and knowledge institutions?

“In my first month as Education and Science Attaché, I organized a seminar for the Dutch Academics Network in the UK (DANinUK). During this seminar, it became very apparent that Brexit has lead to some hurdles for collaboration between scientists and institutions in the UK and the EU. One of the researchers told me that because of the new customs regulations the import of biological samples was delayed. When the live cells he needed for his immunology research did finally arrive… they were dead, and he could not conduct his research as the cells could not be replaced. Other researchers mentioned problems with the lack of clarity with regard to the status of the UK within EU consortia. They find that UK institutions are still being asked to join Horizon projects, but EU-partners prefer them not to lead. Part of my job as Education and Science Attaché is to tackle this lack of clarity and to inform Dutch researchers, institutions, and their UK partner institutions on the changes, and how they might work around these hurdles. But another big part is to inspire each other on joint interest and to stimulate both countries to invest in our future relationship. Also in a post-Brexit era, UK knowledge institutions remain important scientific partners for their Dutch counterparts.”

What kind of partnerships between the UK and the Netherlands do you find inspirational?

“At the end of last month, it was announced that the construction of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) telescope will start. Few projects come close to the scope and ambition of the SKA: the two telescopes that will be built in Australia and South Africa, will form the largest and most complex network of (radio) telescopes ever built. The involvement and commitment of both the UK and the Netherlands as two of the seven founding members  helped make this possible. This is a perfect example of  meaningful multinational research cooperation that will deliver exciting and revolutionary science. It will also produce tangible societal and economic benefits for countries involved. In my opinion this is knowledge diplomacy at its best.”

Speaking of knowledge diplomacy, what do you think the UK and the Netherlands can learn from each other in the fields of education and science?

“As North Sea Neighbors, the UK and the Netherlands are quite similar in many ways, and consequently face similar challenges. Examples include the status of vocational education, teacher shortages, and recognition for research careers. Especially current and important in both countries (and of course in many more countries across the world) is the recovery from the pandemic. Many children and students have had to deal with schools, colleges and universities closing and have as a consequence suffered learning delays. It is important that we stimulate peer learning between our governments. Why? So we can learn from each other’s approaches in tackling this worldwide challenge. Because of my unique position, I can act as a broker to encourage and facilitate this kind of exchange between both countries: between our two governments and their educational and scientific institutions and organizations. Long story short – there is a lot of work to do, and I can’t wait to get started!”