Universities: Erasmus Programme - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 12th July 2016.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 3:00 pm, 12th July 2016

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure the continued participation by British universities in the Erasmus programme.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The referendum result has no immediate effect on those currently participating in or about to embark on Erasmus exchanges. The future of UK access to the Erasmus programme is one of the many issues that will need to be addressed as part of negotiations. The Erasmus national agency, which delivers the programme in the UK, continues to provide practical advice to universities and other participants.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

Does my noble friend accept that that is an extremely worrying Answer? There is enormous concern, especially in the Russell Group of universities, and uncertainty. Does she accept that 200,000-plus students and more than 20,000 academic staff have benefited from this scheme up to now? If this is at risk after two years, it will put back education and educational exchange by light-years.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

As I said, the referendum result does not affect students studying in the EU, those currently on the programme or those who applied in the 2016 application round. It was important that the Government took immediate steps to confirm that student finance would continue to be available to existing EU students and those starting from this autumn, to ensure that existing and future students know exactly where they stand.

Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench

My Lords, post-Brexit, will the Government commit either to signing up as a partner country in the Erasmus programme, as Switzerland is, or to putting an equivalent opportunity in place so that graduate employability is not seriously damaged?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I know that the noble Baroness has long supported languages and their importance, and I entirely agree with her. But I am afraid that all I can say at this stage is what I have said, and that any future issues will be addressed as part of negotiations.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I appreciate that the Government cannot at this moment make any promises about what will happen in the longer term, but will the Minister take back the message that this House regards this issue as one of extreme importance and that in any negotiations which take place, we hope that those conducting them and her department will take this into account and do their utmost to make sure that these programmes continue at full pace?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I can certainly assure the noble Baroness and the House that we take these matters seriously. My honourable friend the Minister for Universities and Science is in close contact with universities to make sure that their voice is heard. As a Government, we take the importance of foreign languages extremely seriously, which is why compulsory modern languages are part of the EBacc and why it is good news that modern language GSCE numbers have increased by 20% since 2010, while A-level entries have increased by nearly 4% since 2014. We are seeing improvements, which we want to continue, and are well aware of the importance of this issue.

Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch UKIP

My Lords, do the Government accept that there is no such thing as EU aid to the United Kingdom because we send it some £20 billion a year gross, of which it sends back around half, or some £10 billion per annum? In other words, for every pound that it sends us we have sent it two. Surely that means that we have plenty in hand to go on funding this sort of programme and other worthy initiatives, if that is what our elected Government want to do?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

What I can say is that EU and international students and academics play an important role in our universities, and our European neighbours are among some of our closest research partners. We want these relationships to continue, and we are doing what we can to give them the confidence we can in the short term. Everything else, I am afraid, is up for negotiation but I certainly reassure the House that we take these issues seriously and want our university sector to remain the world-class, leading international sector that it is.

Photo of Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the four English-speaking countries of the United Kingdom are extremely popular for student exchanges from other parts of Europe? This could be an opportunity for a quick win in negotiations. As she has pointed out, extra students are studying A-level modern languages, yet at the moment if they are going to university in 2019 they are not certain whether they will be able to have such an exchange.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

Certainly, I accept the value of foreign exchanges, and students on study years abroad—whether under Erasmus or not—only pay 15% of the tuition fee they would otherwise pay, and are eligible for an additional loan to cover this.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, the Minister’s department will be keeping records of how many universities have already been in touch since the referendum vote expressing their concerns because they have already heard from partner universities under the Erasmus programme. Can she tell us how many universities have been in touch with her department to express their concerns about the future of their funding?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Baroness is absolutely right: we are in regular contact with the universities. What they are also telling us is that they would welcome the higher education Bill that we are due to bring forward in order to provide a stable framework, and to ensure that our research base and our universities continue to be world class.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Chair, International Relations Committee

My Lords, we must all hope that the benefits of the Erasmus programme are continued and preserved. Is it not worth bearing in mind that English, and indeed Welsh and Scottish, universities have had very close links with all continental universities for the last 700 years, and there is no reason why the benefits of that should not continue? Is it also worth bearing in mind that the Association of Commonwealth Universities has contact with 530 universities and millions of students across the entire globe, and that this contribution to exchange and the development and interweaving of our higher education with other countries can continue apace and be strengthened further?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I entirely agree with the noble Lord about the importance of all our international relationships, which is why, for instance—particularly at school level—we have been working with exam boards to protect community languages such as Punjabi, Portuguese and Japanese to ensure that schools can choose from a diverse range of high-quality courses. It also is why we have been putting a particular focus on Mandarin, and our ambition is that by 2020, 5,000 pupils will be on track for a high degree of fluency in Mandarin. We are an international-facing country, and we want to make sure all our young people have the opportunity to study whichever languages they like, and to take whichever jobs they like within the world.