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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:19 pm on 3rd November 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Wolf of Dulwich Baroness Wolf of Dulwich Crossbench 1:19 pm, 3rd November 2016

I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Soley, on securing this debate and, like many other noble Lords, declare an interest. I am a full-time academic at King’s College London and professor of public sector management; I run a postgraduate degree and also a research centre on international higher education policy.

Many noble Lords have spoken eloquently about the immediate concerns of the higher education sector and the worries that everyone has in the aftermath of the referendum. I would like to mention a couple of more general issues and give the discussion a little more historical context. It is important to remember this although we are indeed in something of a golden age for higher education in this country, it is very recent. Twenty years ago, this country’s higher education sector looked very different and in imminent danger of near collapse, not of becoming, as we have heard, one of what are clearly the two leading systems in the world.

The noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, noted the five British Nobel prize winners currently in the United States. Of course, they did not leave because of Brexit or for any reasons to do with the EU; they left when, not long ago, we had a massive exodus from British science because the conditions were so poor. The past 15 years have been very good for British higher education for a number of reasons, which include greatly increased support in many—not all—areas of research from the Government and the arrival of both fees for home students and growing numbers of overseas students.

It is important to recognise that the general context, particularly the economic context, has a huge impact on what happens to higher education and that, whatever happens with EU programmes, we are in for a very uncomfortable couple of decades because everything will be so uncertain. Our US staff have just taken a 20% pay cut, which will obviously have an impact.

It is also important to realise that although we seem to have been in a glorious period, a number of things in higher education have not been going so wonderfully. Now that everything is up for grabs, I hope that the Government will take note of where a number of things that we have been able to do have papered over cracks within our system and the education system of our country. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, referred to this. Many of our departments, particularly those which require quantitative skills, are recruiting overseas and EU staff not only because they want to be open to all the talents, but because it is extremely difficult to find any British candidates. You can see the impact of that in departments of mathematics or in any of the quantitative social sciences.

I urge the Government, in considering both immigration and higher education policy, to take note of the fact that there are major problems with the education system of this country which mean that we are not nurturing the talent we need for the next generation of higher education researchers and academics. That should be a priority for the next few years.

Perhaps most importantly, I want to refer to the new political environment. Several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Giddens and Lord Haskel, referred to the Higher Education and Research Bill. We are now in a very strange political environment. We have a higher education Bill coming through which proclaims the glories of the market and of open entry for new institutions while in fact increasing enormously the level of micromanagement and regulation of the whole sector.

My fear is that we have a train crash advancing, because we have that on the one side and on the other a Home Office determined to reduce immigration and also—in many ways rightly—concerned about low-quality providers. That is not the Home Office’s job, but in its defence, it has a record of detecting and closing fraudulent language schools. The terror now is that it seems to feel that it can identify high-quality and low-quality institutions and fine-tune immigration in those terms. That is a dreadful prospect. Good university systems are those that have autonomous institutions. Whatever other parts of government may be telling it, there is no way that it can take a simple metric to decide whether an institution is good or bad and tie immigration facilities to that measure.

I ask the Minister to assure us that the Government are indeed aware that they do not have a valid, tested metric for judging the quality of an institution and that any measures relying on such a metric are bound not only to fail in their objectives but to do enormous damage to the quality of the higher education sector.