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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:26 pm on 3rd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 12:26 pm, 3rd November 2016

My Lords, our debate today covers two sectors of our national life that are critical for our future success, competitivity and prosperity as a nation. Our universities, second only in the world to those in the US in their international outreach, are one of the country’s top invisible exporters. At the same time, they are an important source of our soft power. Our scientific research, despite the fact that it is less well funded from the public purse than is the case for most of our competitors around the world, has, by the disproportionately high wins of EU research funding, shown that it is in rude health. One might think that the potential negative impact of Brexit on these sectors would be of deep concern to the Government. There is not much sign of that, however. The CEO of Nissan can get in to see the Prime Minister and emerge with so-far unmentionable assurances, but the presidents of the Royal Society, the British Academy and Universities UK are not being so treated in spite of their very serious concerns, so all the more credit to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for having initiated this debate.

What are those negative implications? First and foremost are ones that come from the talk of imposing new immigration controls. These could adversely affect the recruitment by universities of both undergraduates and postgraduates and of the 15% or so of their academic staff who come from other EU countries. If the controls were reciprocal, that could affect British students and academics moving in the opposite direction. This House has frequently debated the aberrant nature of the Government’s policy of treating students as economic migrants for public policy purposes. That has zero support in this House from any side. It will emerge yet again now in the context of this new threat from Brexit, and it is surely time to rid ourselves of this incubus, which is already resulting in a loss of market share for British universities when compared with their main competitors. We need the Government to say here and now that any new immigration controls they may contemplate will not prevent those with offers of an undergraduate or postgraduate place, or of an academic post, taking up those offers. If they cannot say that now, the haemorrhage of students and academics who have to think in terms of longer time horizons—and it has clearly started—will only accelerate, depriving our universities of material and human resources of the greatest importance to their future well-being.

Then there is the question of the impact of Brexit on the resources available for scientific research both at our universities and more widely. Our position as a substantial net beneficiary of EU spending means that this risk is acute. It is not just a question of the quantum of resources, which may or may not be replaced by a pretty cash-strapped Treasury, it is also about the value of the networks of co-operation across Europe that are provided by EU funding and which bring with them quantifiably greater benefits than the simple amount of the subsidy. All this will be at risk if we pull out of the single market or we regard any payment into EU funding as a red line we will not cross. Surely we need to remain in the Horizon 2020 programme and the programmes that will follow it if we are not to damage our own capacity for scientific research and innovation.

The House is fairly inured to getting no meaningful response from the Government in reply to debates and questions about Brexit, and I fear that today’s experience may not differ very much. It is a little like posting messages to Father Christmas up the chimney. Fortunately, on this occasion and in respect of these two cases, we shall have the opportunity to return to the issues being raised in today’s debate when the Government’s Higher Education and Research Bill reaches this House shortly. That will provide both the opportunity and the need for the Government to respond in substance to them, and it will also provide the opportunity for those of us who are deeply concerned by this situation to consider moving amendments.