The outcome of the EU referendum was not the result that most in the higher education sector wanted, wished for or indeed expected. However, a decision has been made, and we must all accept the result and work constructively with the Government to support the best possible outcome for the UK during the negotiations and beyond.
Universities have a key role to play. They are a national asset that has played and will continue to play an essential part in promoting and driving economic growth, as well as ensuring that we offer and deliver a fairer society. I am certain that our British universities can thrive and prosper post exit but they must receive the right support from our Government. There is too much to lose.
The UK university sector is innovative, entrepreneurial and responsive. That is thanks largely to the autonomy of the sector—something we hope this House will seek to preserve and retain when the Higher Education and Research Bill is considered soon. We have seen positive signs of intent from the Government recently and I am very pleased to note the extension to the government guarantee for funding European Structural and Investment Funds projects. This complements similar guarantees regarding Horizon 2020 research funding.
So there are some good signs but much more needs to be done. We all understand that the Brexit negotiations will be complex, tricky and time consuming, but we must not allow our universities to be unnecessarily and unhelpfully constrained. Our approach should enable them to enhance and promote international research collaboration, with partners both in Europe and across the world; to gain access to increased levels of investment in research and innovation; and to develop workable policies to promote the UK as an attractive destination for all international students and staff, including considerate and pragmatic immigration policy reforms. Collectively, we have some 125,000 EU students and 43,000 EU staff at our universities—all adding value to our economy. We should also enable universities to foster and grow global opportunities for UK students and staff by enhancing mobility programmes, as well as create an environment that facilitates the recruitment and retention of the best available talent.
The UK university system is well respected around the world and we must not jeopardise this good standing. To do so would be detrimental on a number of levels. The figures do not lie. Last year the total value of knowledge exchange interaction between UK universities and their partners across the economy increased to £4.2 billion, and the higher education sector generates nearly £11 billion per annum in export earnings. We lead the world in return on investment from the commercialisation of research, and we match the US in our level of engagement with industry.
Universities help to create new jobs and new businesses in communities. Last year alone, more than 4,100 new start-ups were founded by UK graduates, a great many nurtured by our universities. The University of Wolverhampton has recently created the Caparo Management Suite as a forum space in which business leaders, academics and students can all come together to exchange ideas and promote new business opportunities and development. It is essential that we keep our education system international. Our universities do much for our foreign students but the UK benefits significantly in return.
At Wolverhampton, we pride ourselves on being the university of opportunity. We openly welcome foreign staff and students, who in turn contribute an awful lot in terms of talent, ability and commitment. They add value to the system and we must continue to attract and retain that talent.