Exiting the Eu: Science and Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:11 pm on 19th December 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland Office) 9:11 pm, 19th December 2016

Few will be surprised if I approach today’s debate from a decidedly Scottish perspective. With five universities ranked in the top 200 academic institutions in the world, Scotland certainly punches above its weight, which is reflected in the world renowned academic research carried out north of border. The University of Edinburgh is one example. The research carried out there is truly groundbreaking. We would be hard-pushed to find someone who has not heard of the Higgs boson or Dolly the sheep. It is little wonder that the University of Edinburgh enjoys such a consistently high placing in international league tables.

We should rightly be concerned when that esteemed university warns of the risk of harm to the quality of its research posed by Brexit. In written evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee, the institution gives a stark warning that our exit from the European Union could lead to fewer excellent researchers getting permission to apply to universities here; that fewer international universities will be willing to collaborate with UK universities and researchers; and that less funding could be available. It argues that that could lead to a loss of its global reputation, a loss of opportunities for UK researchers and scientists, and less high-quality advice being available to the Government and business. It warns that, in turn, that could seriously impact on our ability to tackle global problems such as clean energy, food security and ageing populations.

The Government seem capable only of sowing more confusion. There are reports that the Home Office is considering plans almost to halve the number of international student visas issued. Forty-two per cent. of students at the University of Edinburgh are EU and international students. Those proposals will only compound the stark Brexit warning it has issued.

One positive measure that the Government could take now is to give clarity that the immigration rights of EU nationals currently living in Scotland will not change in future. Such assurances would help forward planning and the retention of researchers and scientists. I recently received a letter from Professor Craig Mahoney, principal of the University of the West of Scotland, which plans to open a new state-of-the-art campus in my constituency. In the letter, he emphasises the huge importance of international students not only to universities but to our society and economy. He cites a report from BiGGAR Economics, which found that the university generates £538 million gross value added in Scotland and supports almost 4,500 jobs. He stresses that a significant element of the corporate strategy of the university is to grow the number of international students. It is my belief that the uncertainty caused by Brexit seriously jeopardises that. The immigration status of EU nationals is not some negotiating piece for the Prime Minister, and treating it as such is causing damage.

In addition to clarity on immigration, the Government should start to give answers on future research funding. The University of the West of Scotland has received more than €740,000 of Horizon 2020 funding, with Scottish higher education institutions receiving around €165 million in total. The promise of a Treasury guarantee for current Horizon 2020 funding is welcome, but simply does not go far enough. The Government need to provide the necessary certainty so that academic and research institutions know that they will have enough support for the duration of their projects. We also need a clear sign of Government intent to put in place an equivalent funding framework post Brexit.

The UK already compares very badly with its competitors, and the decision to leave the EU will only further exacerbate the UK Government’s failures in the fields of science and innovation. The hugely negative effect that will have on our economy cannot be understated. The Scottish National party Scottish Government take a very different approach, fostering innovation, investment and internationalism. We want Scotland to become a fairer and more competitive economy. Madam Deputy Speaker, you can be assured that those of us on the SNP Benches will not stand idly by and watch the Tories wage war on our world-class educational institutions.

Almost six months after the vote to leave the EU, it is time for the Government to get their act together and start coming up with some answers. I hope the Minister will do so tonight.