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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:13 pm on 3rd November 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde Labour 2:13 pm, 3rd November 2016

My Lords, although it is repetitive, I too thank my noble friend Lord Soley for achieving this very interesting debate. I declare my interest as a member of Nottingham University Council. There will probably be Members in the Chamber today who attended one of the 45 events that Nottingham University organised in Parliament last Tuesday.

That touches on the point made by my noble friend Lord Judd a few moments ago—how important universities are to their local communities. Nottingham has a proud record in that regard, as it does with international students coming to Nottingham and our students going abroad, particularly to the campuses the university has had for a number of years in China and Malaysia.

Last Tuesday was a clear example of just how entrepreneurial universities are in our community today. Those 45 events were organised by the university but were supported by more than 100 companies in the area, as well as by all the MPs in and around Nottingham. It was a very successful event, demonstrating clearly the important role of the university in the community.

There may be those who say that today’s debate is a case of special interest pleading because it is about universities and funding. I do not take that view. It is about us as a nation. Universities are not separate from or outside our nation; they are an integral part of it and of what we are in many respects. As we have heard today—I will not repeat the details; I have had to throw to one side all the facts that I had as they have all been given—our universities’ success depends on attracting talent and research funding. It is about getting out more than we put in in Europe, and it is about two-way collaboration—and not just with the EU and, separately, internationally. We have good international research because we also have good, successful European research. That is assisted by the 16% of academics from within Europe and the 12% of international academics from outside Europe. Together, all those issues determine success or failure. It is like a small jigsaw puzzle: they all live together; they are all interrelated; and they all contribute to the huge success of our university sector. They are all interdependent.

I think that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was trying to be helpful when he said, “Don’t worry. The research funding you lose, we will meet”. However, it is not just a matter of money; it is about culture and expanding the boundaries of the talent that we can bring together to work in the best interests not just of Britain but of the globe—it is something from which we all benefit.

This debate goes to the heart of what the United Kingdom will be after Brexit. Do we stumble into it, as one might read from this debate? Will we have self-inflicted wounds—or what some might call “vandalism”—if we do not, as a nation, deal with this issue? We are looking desperately to the Government to show leadership and to guide us. We are not looking to them to say, “We’re not going to discuss every line of our negotiations”, or, “We’re thinking about it and will come back to you”. That is not good enough. The point made about Nissan was exactly what many of us feel. My background is in industry. Although none of us knows the details, I was delighted to hear about Nissan last week. However, with all due respect to Nissan and its importance to this country, what it contributes is only a small proportion of that contributed by our university sector to the nation’s economy and sense of well-being. Some 180 countries send students to the United Kingdom. For a little island like ours, that is a huge success. It is no good repeating the mantra, “Business will help”. Business in the UK does not generate even the average amount of research funding in Europe. In that respect, our universities are second only to those in Germany. So we cannot rely on business because it is not successful in bringing in research money.

Universities are right to ask these questions. The Government have a responsibility not to keep pushing it away but to give an answer—a whole, rounded answer—to the question: what is our position on universities for the future?