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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:49 pm on 3rd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Bragg Lord Bragg Labour 12:49 pm, 3rd November 2016

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for securing this very important debate and for his excellent speech. I declare an interest: I have been chancellor of the University of Leeds for the past 16 years. During that time I have seen it transformed, along with so many other British universities. It has become part of the outstanding global success of our universities, as outlined so graphically by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, which punch way above their weight and lead the world—this is not a “Rule, Britannia!” cliché—in many areas of research.

I will quote the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation from evidence he gave to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in its report published in April this year. My noble friend Lady Blackstone has already quoted the first sentence. I think we would like to hear the rest. Mr Johnson said:

“Britain’s success as a science powerhouse hinges on our ability to collaborate with the best minds from across Europe and the world. This report is further evidence that the UK’s influential position would be diminished if we cut ourselves off from the rich sources of EU funding, the access to valuable shared research facilities and the flow of talented researchers that provide so many opportunities to our world-leading institutions”.

He was right. We would all be grateful if the Minister passed this on to the current Prime Minister. The result of the referendum has ruptured that. There are widespread fears that the dire predicted consequences are already beginning to roll in.

I will confine most of my remarks to what is happening at the University of Leeds. Like my noble friend Lord Liddle, I will give a close-up of a particular university. Leeds is part of the Russell Group, it is a very important research university and it is not given to hyperbole. European funding accounted for 15% of Leeds’s research income in 2014-15. Leeds is ranked 11th in the UK for involvement in the Horizon 2020 project for research and innovation funding. The university does particularly well in the generous Marie Curie individual fellowships and European Research Council grants. These are based on researcher mobility, which is essential to a world university. Tougher laws on immigration will compromise or even remove these schemes. In the weeks immediately after the referendum, there were six known cases of the university being removed from Horizon 2020 applications with a combined value of about €8 million, for reasons that have already been expressed.

Under the Erasmus scheme, for every EU student coming to the UK, a UK student can go and experience career-changing development and opportunities abroad. The university receives €1.7 million a year to facilitate this. This could be lost, which would be a great blow to Leeds’s ambition to be internationally engaged, with a workforce of international reputation. The university currently has 286 partnerships in Europe through Erasmus. They would be under threat.

Leeds currently employs around 700 staff from the EU. It urges the UK Government to guarantee that those currently working at UK universities can continue to do so in the long term. There are already considerable worries about the potential impact of immigration status on its ability to attract further academic talent from Europe. First-class science is based on talent and resources. Talent comes where resources exist. Already the university has experienced a couple of cases where senior academics have withdrawn their interest in working at the university due to the uncertainty and/or climate caused by the Brexit vote and the challenge to resources on that account. These numbers may seem modest but they are only the beginning, and from only one university. Perhaps noble Lords see it merely as a trickle, but it could more clearly be seen as a worrying early warning that in the not too distant future the dam will burst.

Leeds has around 1,200 EU students on degree programmes, 250 research students and 400 students on exchange programmes. At the moment there is absolutely no long-term certainty for any of them. The income from EU students alone in 2015-16 was over £8 million. This is to say nothing of the great advantages that we at Leeds have from, for example, the many Chinese students who come to Leeds and go back to China with firm loyalties and friendships. This is just the beginning of what could be a sad slide into a decline in one of our greatest present and potential assets. As the British Academy said:

“A long-term commitment to the UK’s research base is crucial in stabilising the UK research environment and its global competitiveness”.

Those 16 million of us who voted to remain are rather fed up with being dismissed and even derided as if we are bad sports. Democracy should respect minorities and we are a large minority. Part of that minority is the world of universities, which over the past few decades has seen a quite wonderful growth in reach and excellence, to the benefit of all UK citizens. We live in an age of accelerating, increasingly specialised knowledge. The world will go with those who have most of that and can retail it and add to it most accurately. I ask the Minister to outline a future strategy for British universities.