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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:37 pm on 3rd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Labour 12:37 pm, 3rd November 2016

My Lords, I declare my interest as pro-chancellor of Lancaster University. I am very proud of Lancaster, which is in the top 10 of the league tables. I am proud of its success in having a very high proportion of students from state schools, despite being a very strong, research-intensive institution, and of the contribution it makes to the north of England economically. We all accept we have a real regional problem in Britain. We have to have rebalancing. The universities in the north are one of the really positive things about the economy of the north at present.

The first consequence of Brexit for my institution is that we were expecting to get a grant of £12 million this summer to contribute to a health innovation campus we are building next to the university. The first phase is worth £40 million. We were told that this application would be delayed because of Brexit. We now have to put in the application at the end of the year. There is a possibility of a decision some time next year. The fact is that there is already delay and uncertainty. The Treasury sounds, in the way it is asking questions about these projects, as though it really sees the structural funds as a source of economy in the future, which would hit universities in the north very hard. Will the Minister tell us something about that? What is the Government’s commitment on structural funds and universities?

On student recruitment, we have expanded as a result of rapid internationalisation. Our proportion of EU students has gone up from 7% to 10% in the past five years, and of non-EU undergraduates from 11% to 20% of the total student body. The early indications are that the number of international applications is falling this year as a result of Brexit. This is in part an income question. EU students represent an income of some £10 million a year. What is the Government’s position on continued access for EU students to the student loan scheme? For how long will it continue? More than that, it is about immigration and the Government’s attitude to it, about which the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, spoke.

When the question of overseas students was debated in the last Parliament, there were voices in the Government, not least those of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Vince Cable, which were strong in backing overseas student immigration. Of course, we had Theresa May, now the Prime Minister, on the other side. What now is the Government’s position on this? When the Home Secretary suggested that the “tens of thousands” goal might no longer be applicable, she was slapped down. When someone else suggested that figures for overseas students might be taken out of the total, No. 10 said, “No, that is not going to happen”. So what is the Government’s immigration goal in the light of Brexit? Is it to cut immigration to the tens of thousands? If so, how will universities cope with it? All I see on the part of the Government is a pretence that everything can be the best of all possible worlds and a lot of dithering, when they have to face up to hard decisions about the post-Brexit world. If they are not clear on this, they will ruin one of the greatest success stories in modern Britain.

Internationalisation is not just about economics; it is about our vision of higher education. Do we want to be part of a global community of ideas and scholarship, which I believe is the best way of encouraging scientific advance and cultural understanding? Already at Lancaster, two senior jobs have not been taken up because of Brexit. There is a lot of concern among our international staff about their future status and about visas for their families; there is a fear of xenophobia and about whether they will be welcome in Britain any longer. We have to ask ourselves whether this is the kind of country we want to be; or will the Government say clearly that they want to support British universities in continuing to be at the front rank in the world?