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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 3rd November 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for Education) (Higher Education) 2:45 pm, 3rd November 2016

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for securing this debate on the potential impact of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union on funding for universities and scientific research. This is an important topic which is of great interest to the House, as reflected by the number of distinguished Peers contributing today. I shall start by addressing the important and sobering point raised by the noble Lords, Lord Smith, Lord Bilimoria and Lord Mendelsohn, about hate crime. We have been working closely with the police at both the national and the regional level to monitor hate crime since the referendum result. Local forces have the necessary assistance and guidance to respond. On 26 July we published a comprehensive cross-government hate crime action plan which includes education plans. Ministers and officials have met the ambassadors and high commissioners of EU states to offer reassurance.

As many noble Lords have commented, we are right to be proud of the strength of our research and innovation base and the quality of our universities. Research, innovation and knowledge are the drivers of our global competitiveness and a key source of economic advantage. Indeed, in one of her first major speeches as Prime Minister, Theresa May said that she wanted the United Kingdom to formulate a new industrial strategy. British science is one of our truly outstanding national assets, which along with our other areas of comparative advantage will surely be one of the main building blocks. I thank my noble friend Lord Ridley for mentioning that we should use the current changes as an important way of taking a leap forward and see them as an opportunity, although by no means being complacent about the issues we have to face.

We have continued to recognise that the result of the EU referendum has brought with it some uncertainty for our universities and researchers, and I am mindful of today’s news. I will go on to talk about the important steps that the Government have already taken to address those concerns, but it may be helpful to start by reflecting on the UK’s research and innovation landscape. I appreciated the historical perspective highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, and how the climate was somewhat different 20 years ago.

In the global league tables today, the UK has four universities in the world’s top 10 and 18 in the top 100. UK universities are home to both world-class teaching and innovative research. At this point I should like to address some of the concerns raised about the Higher Education and Research Bill, notably those expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Haskel, Lord Giddens and Lord Rees, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden. We believe that the current higher education regulatory system is sub-optimal and was designed for an era of grant funding. It needs to be brought up to date. The reforms in the Bill will drive innovation, diversity, quality and capacity, ensuring that we remain attractive internationally. It will provide stability, putting in place the robust regulatory framework that is needed. It joins up the regulation of the market, which is essential to ensure that students are protected and that both they and the taxpayer receive good value for money from the system. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, raised the issue of the teaching excellence framework and the rating system. The TEF has the potential to enhance the reputation of UK higher education. Students will have a better idea of what to expect from their studies compared with anywhere else in the world, while providers with high scores in the teaching excellence framework will be able to market themselves even more effectively.

The noble Lord, Lord Broers, made a point along the same lines about why we are aiming to bring Innovate UK into UKRI. We believe this will bring benefits to business, researchers and the UK as a whole. It will help businesses identify partners and it will mean research outputs are better aligned with their needs. Researchers will benefit from greater exposure to business and commercialisation expertise. I look forward to addressing the details of the Bill when I help to take it through the House quite soon.

The UK science sector is one of the very best in the world, as many Peers have highlighted. It is highly efficient, competitive and internationally successful. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, highlighted the strong, essential interconnections that are so important with other countries. Within the G7 we have the most productive science base in terms of papers and citations per unit of GDP. As the noble Lords, Lord Kakkar, Lord Fox and Lord Mendelsohn, said, we punch well above our weight. With only 0.9% of the global population and 3.2% of R&D expenditure, we produce 15.9% of the most highly cited research articles, which provides a measure of the quality and impact of UK research. We have a long-established system that supports, and therefore attracts, the brightest minds at all stages of their careers. We will continue to fund excellent science wherever it originates and, importantly, ensure there is academic freedom to tackle important scientific questions.

As I have previously said, we appreciate that the result of the referendum has raised understandable concerns, given the multiple interactions between UK and EU institutions and structures that impact on UK researchers and universities. We have acted quickly to provide important reassurances. Just after the referendum result the Prime Minister wrote to Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel prize-winning scientist and chief executive and director of the Francis Crick Institute, to reassure him of,

“the government’s commitment to ensuring a positive outcome for UK science as we exit the European Union”.

I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Trees, that this is a priority. I note his points about the importance of science and animal research.

As my noble friend Lady Eccles mentioned, in August this year the Chancellor committed that the Treasury will guarantee all competitively bid-for EU research funding that is applied for before our departure from the EU and is successful. The Government have communicated this announcement widely through our embassies, and we are grateful for the efforts of UK stakeholders who have been reinforcing this message through their networks. It is very positive for the sector that the nearly 4,000 UK participants currently working on Horizon 2020-funded projects can be reassured that they can continue to collaborate on excellent research and innovation.

This is not just about academic research; our innovative businesses are also doing well in securing Horizon 2020 funding—€411 million since 2014, putting us in second place in the programme. This August’s announcement should encourage businesses to continue to participate in applications for EU funding.