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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:59 am on 3rd November 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Blackstone Baroness Blackstone Labour 11:59 am, 3rd November 2016

My Lords, I declare an interest as I chair the board of Great Ormond Street Hospital, which undertakes a great deal of research.

One of the strengths of the UK is its universities. We have a world-class system of higher education which is admired around the world. The high status of our system is something we must preserve. The decision to leave the EU is a potential threat to this. There may be some opportunities, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, has just said, but there are many threats as well. One of the benefits of our membership is the opportunity to attract students from the European Union. There are currently 185,000 studying here. This has been possible for them through access to fee loans. Will the same guarantee of access given to students coming here from Europe in 2017-18 be given to those coming here in 2018-19? Will the Minister tell the House what will happen after that? The loss of these students would damage the rich and diverse population in UK universities.

European Union nationals account for about 16% of the academic workforce here. Incidentally, the figure is much higher in some important subjects—for example, mathematics and economics. What reassurances will be given to them? Will they continue to come if there are complex bureaucratic hurdles to contend with? They are at present attracted by the values of openness to the wider world and the quality of research in our universities, to which many of them make an enormous contribution. What assurances can the Minister give that academic mobility—not just student mobility—from Europe will not be impeded after our exit?

Almost half of UK academic papers are written in collaboration with at least one international partner, many from the European Union, and international co-authorship is associated with 41% more impact. The UK is easily the largest beneficiary of EU Research Council funding, obtaining 22% of its grants. This underlines our success in research. As Jo Johnson, the Minister responsible for this area, said earlier this year:

“Britain’s success as a science powerhouse hinges on our ability to collaborate with the best minds from across Europe and the world”.

He was right; it does. Therefore, will the Minister tell us not just that the Government will work to protect the UK’s position for the duration of Horizon 2020? Universities are desperately concerned about the longer-term future beyond Horizon 2020. They expect a response, and they should get one. Given how much money comes into the UK for research, it deserves high priority in any exit negotiations, which need to consider how we can go on having high-level strategic influence as well as funding.

As regards medical research, issues of scope and scale are particularly important. High-quality medical research is vital to innovation in the treatment of patients, in both discovering cures and making sure that their symptoms are alleviated so that they have a better quality of life. Limiting the scope of this research would damage patients, so access to EU funding in this area is not just about money, but about the facilitation of networks, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, also mentioned, and access to pan-European populations. This is especially true with rare diseases, 75% of which affect children, and 30% of children with a rare disease will die before their fifth birthday. To save the lives of these children it is vital to have collaborative projects which expand the population size from which patients can be drawn across Europe for the clinical trials which are needed. At Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Institute of Child Health of University College London, where, incidentally, 25% of the medical staff are from the European Union, there are currently 44 EU-funded research trials. What do the Government plan to do in the longer term—I stress the longer term—to ensure that these cross-European trials can continue?

With more time I could cite many examples where this research is now benefiting children with rare complex conditions. Surely we owe it to them to ensure that this continues.