University academics 'should help steer Brexit action plan'

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Universities must be at the heart of designing the UK's strategy for Brexit but they also need to improve at engaging with the public, a senior academic has said.

Concerns raised by the educational institutions during the debate in the run-up to the referendum in June failed to register with the public, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell said, despite their efforts at stating the case for staying in the EU.

Leading scientists and academics warned before the vote that leaving would cause a major funding blow to British universities and scientific research.

Dame Nancy, who is due to take up her role as president of the British Science Association, suggested academic experts could help devise a Brexit strategy.

Speaking ahead of her presidential address at the British Science Festival in Swansea next week, she said: "Universities need to be at the heart of designing the UK's Brexit strategy and we must do more to encourage a sense of public pride in the UK's fantastic scientific achievements, stressing their importance to our economy and wider society."

Dame Nancy said scientists and researchers need to be supported and trained to get "out and about more", claiming engagement with the public should not be seen as a "soft option".

She said many people are still not aware of what universities do and the contributions they make to society, and spoke of her concerns about how little universities appeared to feature in the EU referendum debate.

She said: "It didn't resonate strongly with the public compared to other issues, which concerns me greatly.

"Now the decision to leave the EU has been made, we need to be more robust in our arguments about how universities better the lives of everyone, and about the value that science brings to the nation."

While funding concerns may be a priority for universities, Dame Nancy said institutions need to demonstrate their relevance to wider society.

She said: "I think universities need to be talking about 'How can we help? How can we help to deliver a solution that is a reasonable one not just for universities but for the UK as a society, for the UK as an economy?'

"We have lots of people who understand the issues within universities and, assuming that experts will be listened to to some extent in the future, they can contribute, I think, to that discussion and debate.

"But I think we need to do so in a way that we say this isn't just about how Brexit needs to be for us, for universities. How does Brexit need to be for the UK in the future?"

Dame Nancy will make her presidential address on September 8 at Swansea University.