PROFESSOR Maria Hinfelaar took up her position as vice chancellor and chief executive at Wrexham Glyndŵr University a little over two months before the European Union membership referendum in June 2016.

A Dutch national who has spent a significant number of years living and working in English-speaking countries, she is in many ways the embodiment of a successful European Union, where freedom of movement is a key touchstone of a modern and progressive relationship between nations.

"We must never lose sight of all the benefits membership of the EU has brought the UK," says Maria. "For our students there is nothing better than being able to travel to other countries and have access to the Erasmus fund, which enables UK higher education students, recent graduates and staff to study, gain work experience, teach or train abroad.

"We have had incoming students from places like Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Germany who spend a semester here and they really enrich the lives of our students. We live in a global economy and what better way to start positioning the UK in this way than starting at a young age to work and study alongside people of other cultures?"

Last month, university leaders said a no deal Brexit would constitute one of the biggest threats faced by the further education sector. At the same time, the Russell Group of universities revealed a nine per cent decrease in the number of EU postgraduate research students enrolling at its institutions this academic year, after a similar decline the year before.

"To put it simply, whether the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal or if it is done in an organised way, the university and its students will not have access in the same way to this kind of funding," says Maria. "The only way we will see that kind of student mobility in both directions is if they pay their own way and then it becomes an elitist activity. It's a great shame."

At Wrexham Glyndŵr University, Maria aims to drive up student numbers and deepen links with industry and the community. She also has ambitions to expand enterprise, innovation and incubation facilities offered by the university, but fears this may have to be put on hold following Brexit.

"We have very significant problems that are facing us as a society in the western world," continues Maria. "We have ageing populations and climate change and you need innovative ways of tackling these problems. But there is no country who can do it on a 'go it alone' basis, which is why we have had for many years Europe-wide schemes where research is carried out together and top researchers from different universities share information and resources."

Maria gives as an example of how the university has recently worked with others in Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Poland to develop a tool kit enabling community organisations to develop business plans and reduce their reliance on grants.

"It was an interesting project that brought tangible benefits," she says. "The first time it ran we were the lead university but the second time around which was after the referendum we had to become a partner because understandably European universities are nervous about working with UK ones because we might drop the ball. In the future we might not be able to be part of that network at all. Whatever happens I will find a way to develop exchange programmes between this university and the others I have worked at, and if that is what I have to do, that is what I will have to do."

Maria says she has quickly become aware of how distressed many of her students are about Brexit and feels the referendum's rejection of European values goes against the ethos of diversity and community many students develop at university.

"There are concerns among our students about opportunities that are no longer available," agrees Maria. "There is this myth that the 1.3 million UK citizens who live in Europe are all retired and having a lovely time but actually the majority are normal people doing a normal job somewhere. Look at myself - I have had wonderful opportunities to live and work in the Netherlands, spend 12 years in Ireland and then move here.

"Those opportunities may still exist but they are going to be complicated because they might have to get work permits and visas. Our students have indicated they think there are now limiting factors on their careers and when you are young you want as many options open to you as possible.

"Their anxiety is strong and for our students there is that disappointment that somehow their future is being eroded and they haven't had a say in it."

Maria has publicly stated that whatever the future landscape looks like, Wrexham Glyndŵr University will remain international in its outlook and will cherish its educational, research, cultural and economic links and do whatever they can to inform and support students as arrangements for the UK to leave the EU are developed and implemented over the coming months and years.

"There is uncertainty," she adds. "Every year we take in around 100 German students who come here on a top-up year in engineering. We have struggled to give them an explanation as to what their tuition fees will be, the paperwork they require, and whether or not they will be able to work placements or continue and do a post-graduate programme with us.

"Nobody likes uncertainty and this is a very competitive environment and these German students could easily decide to go and study in another country where the picture is a bit clearer.

"If you look at the wider picture, £4billion has been spent on Brexit planning and that is money that could have been spent on education and health and it has all gone down the drain.

"I still feel very welcome in the UK and I have been here nearly three years and I'm having a wonderful time here in North Wales, so it is such a shame that Brexit gets in the way of all that!

"Personally I'm in a good place and enjoying my time here but if I was at the start of my working life and had made the decision to live and work in the UK before all this blew up I might have made different choices."

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