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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:08 pm on 3rd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Smith of Finsbury Lord Smith of Finsbury Non-affiliated 1:08 pm, 3rd November 2016

My Lords, there are not many things that you can say our country does so well that we genuinely beat the world at it. Our leading universities are among them.

I declare my interest as master of Pembroke College, Cambridge. I shall focus on what the impact of the referendum result has been and continues to be in the college. There are five issues I shall highlight briefly. The first is the impact on the staff. Many of the staff who make the college work day by day come from the EU. They have given years of loyal service. They are settled here; they have homes and families here. On 24 June, they were utterly distraught. Their position here must be assured, yet at the moment their position is being used as a bargaining chip by the Government to try to secure the genuine rights of British citizens in EU countries. Surely it would be so much better if the Government would give a free and open commitment to ensure that those EU citizens already settled and working here can remain. In addition, if our academic staff, especially those at post-PhD level, have to seek visas in future under tier 2 provisions, it will be cumbersome, uncertain and expensive. It is essential that if that is to happen, the cap on tier 2 is either raised or, better still, removed altogether.

Secondly, there is the impact on our students. The Government have helpfully guaranteed the position of those students who will be starting their studies in 2017. That is welcome, but what about the uncertainty beyond that, for both undergraduates and postgraduates? Already this year we have seen a drop of 14% in undergraduate applications to Cambridge from EU candidates. Even more alarmingly, the Government are now talking about including all foreign students within overall immigration limits. I urge them as strongly as I can to think again on that. The impact on our universities, financially and academically, would be terrible.

Thirdly, there is access to research funding, about which much has already been said in this excellent debate. UK universities have received 16% of all European research funds in recent years, way beyond what a statistically equivalent proportion would yield. Among all the European universities, Cambridge has received the highest number of European Research Council grants, while Oxford is second. It is also important to remember this is not just about science research but about humanities and social science research. Can the Government guarantee that they will replace all the research funds that flow at present from the EU?

Fourthly, much has also been said in this debate about research collaboration. Increasingly, research at the highest level is conducted not in a single university but as a collaboration across several. Freedom of movement for academic researchers has been crucial to that, and common access to research grants is also crucial. There is already evidence that UK-based academics are being left out of research collaborations because of Brexit uncertainty.

There is one other, final thing to add. Since the referendum, we have witnessed a hugely disturbing rise in the level of hate crime, abuse, name calling, xenophobia and even assaults. In Cambridge, some of our most senior academics from EU backgrounds have directly experienced this. Our country and our intellectual life have been severely diminished as a result. It is almost as if licence has been given to denigrate and to hate. Where, oh where, is that tolerant, internationalist, welcoming, quirky, slightly grumpy, outward-looking, gentle, civilised country that I thought we were living in? I want it back