An artist's impression of the new facility.
The upcoming referendum on Britain’s EU membership has become a hot topic in higher education, with institutions and academics debating possible impacts on research funding and international student recruitment.
One group of universities has begun working on a dramatic contingency strategy should the UK vote for Brexit in June. Plans are under discussion for the construction of a self-sufficient offshore campus in the English Channel.
The new site will maintain links with existing UK universities, allowing it to recruit students and award degrees as normal. However, a location in international waters will allow the facility to agree its own terms with the European Union.
One of the representatives of the new scheme is Doctor Mary Rose, a specialist in naval insurance claims, brought in to undertake financial risk assessment for the project:
“The plans aren’t fixed yet. We still need to agree the budget with key stakeholders and discuss the engineering challenges involved. We may end up repurposing existing infrastructure from the oil and gas industry, or going for a free-floating solution. But we’re confident the project has legs. Even if the campus itself doesn’t.”
One of the most exciting aspects of the offshore campus is the potential to manage visa requirements in a way that welcomes students from across the Europe. But that’s not all. Says Rose:
“Student mobility is key, of course. That’s the principle at the heart of existing EU initiatives like the Erasmus+ programme and it’s precisely why our member institutions want to avoid the consequences of a Brexit.”
“But there’s more to mobility than students. We can’t say much yet, but one of the options being tabled is a free-floating vessel, with its own propulsion system. This could lead to the world’s first fully mobile campus.”
Concerns over political neutrality mean the universities behind the offshore campus have yet to reveal their involvement. However, representatives of the group have been open about the unprecedented financial challenges the project would face.
Professor Frank Birdseye is a former advisor to the Marine Management Organisation and a consultant for the UK fisheries industry:
“We know that the UK receives around 8.8 billion in research funding from the EU and that all of this would be at risk if we vote for Brexit. Unfortunately, the total cost of building an offshore campus has been estimated at around 8.9 billion.”
“However, we’d also have access to unique economic resources and opportunities such as our own fishing quotas. So we’re confident there’d be a net benefit. Provided we can find the money for some nets.”
Regardless of the upfront cost, the new campus is being positioned as a testament to innovation in UK higher education. Says Rose:
“Britain has always been a leader in higher education. These plans will see us leading the way once more as we fly the flag for science and research by taking the modern university into uncharted waters. Metaphorically speaking, of course. We do have charts and the Geography department will be checking them carefully. The campus will definitely have a flag on it though.”
Innovation won’t end with the campus’s construction. An offshore location brings unique challenges as well as opportunities. But the plan is to solve these through the very research the campus is designed to sustain.
Professor Birdseye is enthusiastic about the process:
We’d love to be able to set up a fully functioning campus with all faculties in pace from the start, but it’s just not possible with the logistics involved. Instead we’ll be bringing in departments according to a staggered timetable.”
“We’ll begin by setting up an Engineering school, which should help us stay afloat.”
“After that we’ll get started with Politics and Law. Because, frankly, no one really has any idea about the legality of all this.”
And it’s not just down to the facility’s academics. Once the campus is operating students will be invited to contribute to its success:
“We’re already investigating the possibility of a funded PhD project on avian biofuels. I mean, there’s got to be something we can do with all the seagull droppings.”
The scope of this undertaking means that development of the offshore campus has had to begin well in advance of the referendum.
This raises an obvious question – what if the UK doesn’t vote to leave the EU?
One option would be to press on with the facility regardless. Doctor Rose is hopeful that the British government would see the campus as an opportunity:
“We’re always hearing how the UK doesn’t have enough aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines or plumbers anymore. Well, the floating campus would be big enough to land at least a few planes on and we’d almost certainly have a Physics department. Realistically we’d need an awful lot of plumbers too.”
Other partners could include members of the EU itself:
“The campus would be fully duty free, which is obviously great for the student union bar. But it’s also a real opportunity for trade within the EU. We’d expect to sell plenty of French wine, Belgian chocolates - even those funny little Italian biscuits you sometimes get with coffee.”
Failing all of this, there are other plans to future-proof the facility:
“We can’t say much yet”, says Professor Birdseye, “But we are looking into the logistics of running a cable between the campus and a big rock in Felixstowe. That way, if the UK ever re-joins the EU, we can just winch it back.”
As a joint venture between multiple universities, the offshore campus won’t take its name from any one member institution. Acronyms have also been ruled out, due to the fact that the letter ‘U’ would almost certainly predominate.
But other options are available. One would be to poll current students at member universities. This, according to Rose, is the approach under discussion:
“We’ve suggested a few possibilities that reflect the facility’s status as a proud example of UK maritime prowess and discovery: Nelson University, Darwin University, etc.”
“At the minute though it’s looking like the campus could end up being called Floaty McFloatface.”