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It is astounding that as we face a harsh cliff-edge Brexit there was practically no mention of the economic impact of Brexit in the Budget. However, I will focus on the challenges facing higher education, which have not been addressed.
The UK currently has a world-leading research base with academics from across the globe. Many of these researchers are EU nationals. In order to protect the quality of this sector, the Prime Minister should be rolling out the red carpet for these staff, begging them to remain here, but instead the Government have only offered vague and confusing messages to EU citizens without providing any guarantees as to their right to stay. This has left many of our EU national friends and colleagues, world leaders in their fields, looking elsewhere for positions. This impacts significantly on the economy. International students, both EU and non-EU, are worth over £25 billion to the UK economy and provide a significant boost to regional jobs and businesses. Research conducted for Universities UK on the economic impact of those students shows that in 2014-15, spending by international students supported more than 200,000 jobs in university towns and cities, with the transport and retail sectors benefiting greatly from their spending.
The UK is currently the second most popular destination for overseas students, after the US. In 2014, the 400,000-plus international students in the UK made up 19% of all students registered at UK universities. They come here not because they like the weather, but because of the quality of courses on offer and the research being conducted. Without international research expertise, we will struggle to attract those students and we will feel the economic pinch.
The picture in Scotland, of course, is similar to that in the UK as a whole. Scotland’s higher education institutions benefit greatly from EU funding programmes, but how much longer that continues is currently in the hands of the UK Government, and that is a huge worry. Through Horizon 2020, Scottish higher education has secured more than €217 million. That funding is vital for attracting skills and talents and for keeping our research institutions at the top of international league tables. Without that funding stream and the associated collaborations, our institutions may struggle to remain internationally competitive. As well as losing international students, we could fall behind other economies in terms of productivity and innovation.
The Chancellor has not made clear how the UK Government are going to match that threatened funding. To not do so would just prolong the uncertainty, which is already causing much anxiety in the sector. Securing our future in Horizon 2020 and its successor programme should be a priority.
I am really positive about the £300 million being offered in England to support 1,000 new PhD places and fellowships in STEM subjects, but I do wonder where the supervisors and lecturers will come from. Will EU nationals be welcome to apply for those posts? Will they be welcome to stay?
There is £320 million of funding for 110 new free schools and grammars, but we know that the single most important resource in ensuring excellence in education is the teacher. We have already seen an erosion in the terms and conditions of teachers in England under this Tory Government. Can the Tories now guarantee that nationally agreed pay scales and conditions such as maternity and sick pay will be guaranteed? At least Scotland now has the possibility of a new and brighter future.