My Lords, I too add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for introducing this vitally important debate. The only interest I can possibly declare is that I was once educated at and by Oxford, but I assure my old university that my mistakes are all my own.
At this, the tail-end of the debate, we have heard so many distinguished and expert speakers that it is a challenge for those of us speaking at this stage to produce any new evidence. However, I would like to add my voice in support of much that has been said. It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, who brings such energy and enthusiasm in his support for universities.
In all the publicity and dialogue during the referendum campaign, too little notice was taken of the impact on our universities of severing links with the European Union, which have been so productive and valuable over many years, as we have heard from all around the House today. In fairness, not only did the Leave campaign not highlight the impact on universities, the Remain campaign did not speak up loudly enough either. It was apparent that university communities understood, as they tended to vote in large numbers to remain. They appreciated the value of all the many connections that the EU offers, for scholarship, research, cultural and economic reasons. We must remember that scientific research is one of the UK’s strongest assets.
That is one reason why my party is arguing for clarity over the Brexit negotiations and for Parliament and the people to decide, when the options are much clearer, whether the new deal is the one that the country really wants and needs. After all, the battle bus promise of £350 million to the NHS if we left the EU is not looking as though it will be a promise kept in the near future. So it is just possible that the Brexiteers’ sunny uplands may turn out to be not so sunny, nor indeed so up.
In an insightful article in the Guardian this week, Peter Scott from the Institute of Education set out some of the threats to universities, which we have heard again today. First, as this debate highlights, is the threat to the UK’s participation in European research programmes, access to funding and to student exchange schemes such as Erasmus. The Government have done nothing to reassure EU nationals, staff and students of their continuing welcome here. Yet, we know that teachers and researchers from the EU play a key role in maintaining the UK’s enviable position in global league tables. In a number of important disciplines, we need European students to fill deficits in domestic demand, particularly in science, engineering and medicine, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, and my noble friend Lady Walmsley and others have set out. I repeat the question: what assurances can the Minister give of continued working rights for current EU staff and their dependants at UK universities and for those who take up positions during the transition period before the UK has left the EU? In the longer term, will universities be sure that they can continue to recruit the talented staff they need from all over the world without overly burdensome visa requirements?
We have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, about the importance of academic mobility, and the noble Lord, Lord Soley, mentioned the burdensome visa requirements that may well be a hindrance to some of those we really want to attract to our country. We can all be cynical about league tables, which we know can distort, mislead and be totally unreliable, but it is nevertheless gratifying to find that Oxford heads the global table of universities, with Cambridge and Imperial close behind. These positions are held by virtue of attracting talent from around the world, and notably from within the EU.
A further threat which Peter Scott described in his article, and which has been set out by the noble Lords, Lord Smith, and Lord Bilimoria, is that the UK has established itself as a nasty country. Why should the brightest and best scholars and students choose to come to a country which is loath to welcome those in real distress and puts up barriers for genuine students, insisting that they be classified as immigrants and therefore included in the numbers that the Government are intent on reducing? We heard this from the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, from the noble Lords, Lord Hannay, Lord Liddle, Lord Smith and others around the House. How can it be encouraging to know that the UK is reluctant to accept you because it wants to accept as few foreigners, including foreign students, as possible in order to meet an imagined ideal number? We urge the Minister to have students removed from immigration figures. That is logical. They are, after all, not here to say. The vast majority return home at the end of their studies. It is right and it makes economic sense.
We need to do much more to recapture our reputation as an open, friendly and welcoming country, which will be much more difficult once we have shut the door on partnership with our closest geographical friends and neighbours. I too support the importance of networks, which the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, my noble friend Lady Smith and the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, all referred to. The networks are as important as the funding. Other countries are not being slow in extending the hand of welcome to students who might well have chosen to come and study here.
Our withdrawal from the EU makes it even more important to increase and improve our ability to communicate with the world in languages other than English. Over the years, we have lost influence within the EU because not enough of our brightest and best opted to work in Brussels, and when they did they were frequently hindered by not having mastery of at least one and preferably more foreign languages. Without the umbrella of the EU, we are now on our own, negotiating collaboration, including on academic, trade and security matters, with countries where English is not the preferred language. What plans do the Government have for improving our language proficiency in preparation for our withdrawal from the EU?
Funding to keep us at the forefront of research in science, technology and engineering is of fundamental importance, but so too is funding for the ability to communicate internationally. Our universities deserve every encouragement and support in their promotion of modern languages. Networking is all the more effective when there is respect and fluency in people’s native languages. Within that context, I add my voice to others around the House on continued support for Erasmus and other programmes that encourage understanding, not only of other languages but of other cultures. There is immense value to our students of having the opportunity to live and study abroad. Exchanges promote international relations and understanding, and they in turn promote peace and security.
We heard from the noble Lords, Lord Hannay, Lord Rees, Lord Haskel and Lord Giddens, the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, and others that we will shortly be receiving in this House the Higher Education and Research Bill. Sufficient unto the day—there will be time enough to scrutinise this controversial Bill in the coming months, but it is worth raising within this debate the fact that the Government appear intent on adding to the sector’s challenges by wishing to impose some astonishing and unprecedented changes on this, our most highly regarded of sectors. We shall hear more than enough about that Bill in good time, so I simply note that universities facing Brexit probably should be spared home-made challenges from an intrusive and unhelpful Government. I also note the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth on the dangers of seeking to rank universities’ teaching in gold, silver and bronze. The Girl Guides and the Boy Scouts have some good ideas, but this is possibly not a good one to apply to universities. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, reminded us, the metrics for teaching excellence are extremely dodgy—I do not think that she used that word because it may be unparliamentary, but that is a fact.
The noble Lords, Lord Kakkar, Lord Mair, Lord Hannay and Lord Broers, referred to the learned bodies—the Royal Society, the British Academy and the Royal Academy of Engineering. We have in our country these amazingly highly regarded institutions and the Government would do very well to pay attention and to seek advice from the people they represent.
Our world-renowned universities are facing uncertain and difficult times and in this House we shall do what we can to encourage the Government to work with them to consult, support and not compound their difficulties—indeed, to meet the tests of the noble Lord, Lord Fox. This debate has enabled us to air some of the concerns and solutions, to ensure that our universities flourish into the future. I hope that our universities have heard the support that they have had from all around the House for their future well-being and our concerns for the difficulties that they currently face. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.