My Lords, I declare an interest as an emeritus governor of the LSE, and I am glad to be a life member of court at both Lancaster and Newcastle Universities. In relation to those universities, I emphasise the importance of what my noble friend Lord Liddle said. Universities in the north are vital to the regeneration and future well-being of a largely deprived community. If we allow this situation to deteriorate, we shall never be forgiven. This is a grave and serious matter on which we need urgent reassurances.
I have sat as a lay man listening to this debate and have a sense of rapidly advancing disaster ahead. I do not say “disaster” lightly. Universities and higher education are fundamentally important, to not just the survival but the well-being of the United Kingdom. They need to be cherished, encouraged and supported in every way. If I were to say nothing else about the messages that I have heard today, what worries me is that the effectiveness of universities, their spirit and the quality of their work are related to their morale. It is upsetting to hear the accumulated evidence of plummeting morale in universities as uncertainty prevails.
We are discussing this issue in the context of not just Brexit but the higher education Bill, which is rapidly coming towards us. We will all need to keep going back to the fundamental point of asking: what are universities for? They are of course there to provide the resources of knowledge, expertise and the rest that are essential to the running of any community. However, they are about not just that but originality, challenging and the ability to put forward vision, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, said so well. How much I should like to have back the Britain that he wants to get back to in terms of values and attitudes.
It is impossible to have a relevant university in the modern world—which is, above all, highly interdependent—if it is not by definition an international community. It is not just about the different experiences that people bring in their own academic work; it is the social and psychological reality of students and staff approaching their work and lives together in the context of feeling every day that they belong to a global community. It is there in their university. Unless that is preserved as a high priority, our universities will quickly wither and become irrelevant.
The important point, above all, is vision. In some ways we are facing, in the context of this debate, the consequences of a trend that has been developing too fast—a tendency to see universities simply in their utilitarian contribution to the well-being of society. Our past strength and future is and has been related to people being prepared to challenge and think outside the established routine, and to look ahead. How on earth is that to happen if we do not have the richness of international community in our midst? This is an urgent debate and we need evidence—I do not see any—that the Government are giving it the priority it deserves.