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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:24 pm on 3rd November 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Eccles of Moulton Baroness Eccles of Moulton Conservative 1:24 pm, 3rd November 2016

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Soley, on introducing this most timely and important debate. It is daunting to stand here following so many powerful and well-informed speeches—and there will be more to come.

The interest I can declare is a long time ago. In 1982, I joined Durham University’s council and for the next 20 years played a part in its administration. During that time and more recently, changes in funding have caused some uncertainty, but nothing compared with what we are facing today. For instance, the introduction of tuition fees was a departure from the formula previously used by the Higher Education Funding Council. Also, there were quotas for student numbers, with financial penalties if the quotas were not achieved or were exceeded. In the case of funding for research, the application of the research rating is adjusted every six years and measures the output of the academic staff and their publications. The next research excellence framework is due in 2020. The funding from the EU comes via the eligibility criteria. It varies year by year, but remains a reliable source of funding. That is a little bit of scene-setting of how it was before we woke up on 24 June, when the landscape had already changed dramatically.

One of the first reactions was: what about freedom of movement and the right to stay? This concerned everyone working in the university sector who came from the EU, both students and academic staff. There has been some reassurance from the Government, but until negotiations have taken place, it is inevitably short term. This, in a sector where planning is long term, especially for research contracts, introduces a degree of uncertainty never known before.

To state the obvious, universities carry out research on disciplines other than those within the scientific definition. Although these disciplines attract far less funding for research, they must not be disregarded. There is an interdependence between the student body and the academic body; one could not exist without the other in our public universities. The funding of one affects the funding of the other. It must also be remembered, as was mentioned by a previous speaker—I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone—that in the field of medicine, teaching hospitals have links to universities, so scientific research impacts on our health service, too.

The next subject I want to mention has been mentioned by more than half the speakers so far: Horizon 2020. The Government have been reassuring about continuing participation in it. The body describes itself as having the biggest research and innovation programme in the EU, with nearly €80 billion of funding available for seven years, starting in 2014. The Government say that they will work with the Commission to ensure payment when funds are awarded. The important message at this stage is that UK participants can bid for competitive EU research funding while we remain a member of the EU. The Treasury will underwrite the payment of such awards, even when specific projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU. It is also important that funding for scientific research is maintained so that we hold our position as global leaders in international research.

The universities themselves do not appear to be looking for change. Therefore, we need the negotiations to protect and preserve all that is good in our universities and research activities. This will allow them to prosper and develop into the future.