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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:04 pm on 3rd November 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat 12:04 pm, 3rd November 2016

My Lords, funding is clearly crucial for higher education institutions. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for bringing this debate this afternoon. Like many other speakers, I declare an interest, or even interests. I had noted two, and then the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, caused me to think of a third one.

My interests on this occasion are directly relevant to what I will talk about in the few minutes available. The first is that I am employed by the University of Cambridge, which benefits significantly from membership of the European Union and access to funding from Horizon 2020 and associated programmes. Secondly, while my own Department of Politics and International Studies does not apply to so many programmes, the European centre that I direct has had funding from the European Union to create collaborative networks. I am now the third speaker to talk about networks, and a hugely important theme is that we are talking not just about funding—networks are important, people are important, collaboration is important—so, if we look merely at the financial aspects of research funding, we miss an important part of what Her Majesty’s Government need to think about in negotiating the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. My third interest is as a member of the advisory board of the Institute for European Studies at the Free University in Brussels, the ULB. I mention that because, when I was asked to be on that advisory board, I stopped to think, “Do I have time to do it?” and “Do I want to do it?”, but I did not think, “Will it be difficult for me to get to Brussels? Will I have to fill in bits of paper and get visas to travel?”. I can see the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, shaking his head, but there are key issues to think about that go beyond funding, which relate back to how the United Kingdom will play out its role in collaborative research in the future.

Funding is part of that, and the Government have already been clear that they are willing to support funding that would be lost under Horizon 2020 and replace it up to 2020. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, already suggested, “up to 2020” does not give much certainty at all. Applications are going in now where, anecdotally, we are told again and again that British people or people who are based in UK universities are being discouraged from being the lead applicants for EU funding. That needs to be thought about. Will the United Kingdom seek to be part of the European research area, and ideally part of Erasmus, once we leave the European Union? Can the Government commit to saving the best opportunities and closest co-operation for the United Kingdom by being part of the European research area post Brexit?

At the moment, the United Kingdom benefits from having significant numbers of EEA nationals as students and academic staff. At the moment, 20% of Cambridge’s post-doctoral fellows come from other EU and EEA countries. But there is no certainty for these people. At present, we have no idea what the Government propose on visas and free movement. If the Government do not propose to be part of the European Economic Area or something similar, can the Minister indicate what sort of arrangements they are looking for that will enable EU nationals to have confidence about coming to take up jobs in the United Kingdom? The link back to funding is that, at present, the United Kingdom receives more funding from the EU than any other member state, and a significant number of the ERC grants go to EU nationals resident in the United Kingdom. If the United Kingdom is outside of those networks, the pull factor for leading European scientists disappears. Those people need certainty. If the United Kingdom is to remain world-leading, it needs to demonstrate that it is open for business. Maybe the plan is to have a visa-free regime for free movement of academics or maybe the plan is to expand tier 2 visas, but at present we have no idea.

While I understand that the Minister is not going to give a running commentary, can he at least give some assurance that the Government are thinking about these questions and that the UK is open for global business, including in higher education and research?