Brexit: Impact on Universities and Scientific Research - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:53 am on 3rd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Willetts Lord Willetts Conservative 11:53 am, 3rd November 2016

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Soley, on bringing this debate to the House and posing the crucial questions he has. I draw the House’s attention to my entries in the register of interests, particularly my post as a visiting professor at King’s College London and serving on the board of the Crick Institute.

I shall keep my remarks short because so many Members of this House wish to speak. In many ways, that is my central point: there is a range of concerns in the university and science community about Brexit, and we need some structure or framework in which they can be considered explicitly by the Government, the different arguments can be weighted and we can have an indication of how they could be addressed as part of the negotiations on Brexit. There is a range of exercises in learned societies, in individual universities and their representative groups, but I press on the Minister the need for some kind of framework and explicit consultation by the Government.

The Government have already made some very welcome announcements. I welcome in particular that the Minister for Universities and Science has announced a continuation of funding for schemes that have already been successful in the EU and the extension of continuing funding of students from the EU at British universities. But the Government need to go further.

A crucial issue that needs to be addressed is what kind of relationship we might have in future with Horizon 2020. I rather regret that the way that the debate went in the referendum focused so much on funding and not very much on networks, which are as important as the funding, if not more so. Maintaining those networks is crucial and there are several ways in which it could be done. We could continue to participate in Horizon 2020; other countries do so that are not members of the European Union, so that would be one option. I think I have picked up some concerns among Ministers that Horizon 2020 is cumbersome and has high overhead costs. On the other hand, those costs may arise simply because it is creating partnerships between institutions in more than one country, which is an inherently more complicated activity. Those pros and cons should be explicitly identified.

Another option would be for Britain to set up a parallel fund to enable universities and research institutes in our country to be funded by the UK Government if they wanted to align themselves with the Horizon 2020 programme. Another option, which I know is being considered in some places, is for universities and research institutes in the UK to set up a new operation within the EU which would be—they hope—still eligible to receive EU funding. The relative pros and cons of those options and the frameworks for them are exactly the kind of thing on which a consultation exercise led by the Government could provide very useful guidance and advice.

The noble Lord, Lord Soley, also referred quite rightly to student mobility. Of course, that means attracting students—and young people in general—into Britain. There is an ingenious visa regime for young people aged under 31 from certain, specified countries to come and work in Britain for up to two years. We currently apply it to nationals from Australia and New Zealand, for example. Could we make that offer to nationals from many EU countries as a very powerful signal—and a practical offer on visas—that showed that they would still be welcome here? Equally important is that we continue to make it possible for British students to go and study abroad. In fact, we would gain if more British students had the opportunity to study abroad. Another idea to consider, therefore, would be that fee loans—currently available only for study at a British university—could be made available to cover the costs of studying abroad at universities in specified countries, which could of course include member states of the European Union. These kinds of ideas need to be properly investigated and I hope that the Government will do so.

There are of course enormous challenges for universities and research institutions from Brexit; there are also opportunities. Many universities that I have visited, and it is also the experience of the Crick Institute, would love to have a commercialisation unit alongside their research lab, but have been told that if they did so the VAT exemption on the building of their new facility would be lost and the whole facility would pay VAT at 20%. The ad hoc rule of thumb is that they should therefore have only 5% of commercial activity. It would a powerful boost to the sector at a time of such anxiety if the Treasury signalled that this is exactly the kind of tax rule that could change if we left the EU and that, in future, there would not be a VAT liability if our publicly funded institutes and universities created places for commercialisation on a much larger scale.

There are widespread concerns and I am sure that they will expressed in the course of our debate today. I very much hope that, in a systematic and considered way, the Government will set up a framework in which they can be addressed.