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Higher Education - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:11 pm on 19th July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Smith of Finsbury Lord Smith of Finsbury Non-affiliated 1:11 pm, 19th July 2018

My Lords, I remind the House of my interest as master of Pembroke College, Cambridge. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton, on his choice of subject and on an excellent opening contribution to this extremely good debate. I greatly enjoyed the contribution from the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Chichester in his maiden speech. I trust that we will hear much more from him as part of our discourse in the years to come. I was particularly impressed by his reference to some of his distinguished predecessors. I recall, however, that one of my predecessors as master of Pembroke was Bishop Nicholas Ridley, who was burned at the stake by Queen Mary. I have to observe that I trust this practice will not be revived in current times.

The starting point for our discussions on this subject has to be that our best universities are globally significant institutions. Not many things these days that we do as a country are genuinely world-beating. There is the BBC, our best and greatest museums and galleries, our theatre and our artistic endeavour, but I believe that our best universities head that list. Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial and UCL are consistently in the top 10 universities worldwide; many others are in the top 100. This is because of the robustness of the educational and teaching experience provided to students, and the quality of research undertaken.

However, part of this success is down to the opportunities that we offer for international students to come and study here. The numbers, of course, vary from institution to institution. In Pembroke, 20% of our undergraduates and some 60% of our postgraduates come from abroad. Those opportunities bring a whole range of benefits, as many noble Lords have mentioned in this debate. They bring in essential income for our universities. Especially in STEM subjects, home fees simply do not cover the full cost of providing the education that is offered. Overseas students also bring in essential income for the entire national economy but in many ways there are much more important non-economic arguments.

First, attracting the best and brightest students from wherever they come, including from across the world, enhances the sense of aspiration that each cohort of students has; it means that they wish to learn even more strongly than they might otherwise do. Secondly, the social, cultural and educational benefit from mixing with fellow students from a wide variety of backgrounds is enormous. Our students learn about other cultures and other life experiences. They develop a better understanding of the wider world because of the contact that they have with international students. Thirdly, as has been mentioned many times, the soft power impact of the experience gained by international students while here is something that they carry with them for the rest of their lives. They go on to run countries, businesses and organisations. Over the last 40 years, I have met leaders from around the world who had experience here as international students and feel positively about the UK as a result. Fourthly, many of the big issues that we face now are global in nature: climate change; migration; global health; and the effectiveness of development policies. These things cannot and should not be studied in isolation. They are things where international engagement is essential if we are to understand and resolve some of these problems effectively.

Why, then, are we as a country making it so difficult to sustain this engagement with international students? First, of course, there is the madness of Brexit. Not only do we suffer the diminished standing around the world that we now have as a result of our decision, but EU students in particular are now wondering whether they are really welcome here. The Government have of course guaranteed the fee levels for those undergraduates starting this year and next but there is uncertainty beyond that. We are already finding locally that the numbers of applicants are beginning to fall. Secondly, we have the equal madness of insisting on counting international students within the overall net migration statistics. Almost every contributor to this debate has mentioned this as a serious problem. No one thinks it is sensible, not even the Minister’s department. It appears to be only the Prime Minister who is adamant that it should continue. The reality is that students come for three years and then go back home, enhanced by their experience and feeling warm about the UK. There are very low levels of recidivism in terms of overstaying; students study and return. The case for counting students separately from the overall migration totals is overwhelming.

When we turn to postgraduate study and subsequent research, the picture is even clearer. There are real benefits for the quality and content of research, the collaboration and the benefits that can bring, and the advancement of knowledge and understanding. One of the worst things that anyone has said in recent years was, “We’ve had too much of experts”. The need for knowledge, expertise, the analysis of real evidence and attachment to fact rather than theory are the building blocks of future success as a nation. Research and the role of our universities in it is the way that we do that. Again, Brexit is making all this infinitely more difficult. Access to European research funding is likely to be much harder after Brexit, while UK universities have of course especially benefited from European funding in this respect—way beyond what would be a per capita proportion if we were not able to get that research funding in such quantity.

The ease of research collaboration has been mentioned, especially by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. Most ground-breaking research now is not done in isolation by a single academic in a single institution; it requires collaboration across national boundaries. Within the EU at the moment, this is easy; it means regular contact, the sharing of ideas and discoveries, attendance at workshops and conferences—there is ease of collaboration. If we go ahead with Brexit—especially if it is a no-deal Brexit, which I fear looks increasingly like the only option that will be on the table—this will all become infinitely harder.

Then, for those coming here from elsewhere around the world as research students, post-doctoral assistants, research fellows and early-career lecturers, there is a complex struggle to get the appropriate visa and navigate the bureaucracy. I have three particular pleas on this. First, ease the tier 1 route for exceptional talent. Secondly, expand the tier 4 pilot scheme, which is especially important for master’s students. Thirdly, if we end up with a hard and horrible Brexit, make it a priority to ensure swift visa provision for master’s students, research students, post-doctoral contributors and academics coming here to teach.

I have one other brief thing to say. Some UK universities have established satellite campuses abroad. This would not be appropriate for Cambridge colleges, where the importance of location and face-to-face contact is so crucial, but for some universities it is a vital part of their sustainability. What is potentially more important, even for the wide spread of universities, is the development of twinning arrangements and partnerships with universities or faculties around the world, not just with the Stanfords, MITs and Harvards but with universities in Africa and Asia and across the rest of Europe. The potential for shared projects and exchanges of academics, students and researchers is huge. Let us try to make this easier rather than more difficult.

In summary, our universities are strong. They have much to offer the world, and as a result they have much to offer the UK’s economy and society. Let us remove the obstacles that are currently making all this harder. There is so much to be gained.