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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Norton for the opportunity to discuss this important topic today, and I thank noble Lords for the opportunity to speak in the gap for a quick four minutes. I welcome the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester and congratulate him on his eloquent maiden speech.
As we approach Brexit, there will be a great deal of interest in how the UK can maximise opportunities to trade and engage with a wider range of international partners as well as securing and maintaining strong relationships with our European partners. That is vital if we are to continue to enhance the future prestige and prosperity of UK higher education. Education is already a major service export for the UK but there is substantial capacity left to grow. We need to invest to maintain our current position as the second most popular global destination for international students and as the leading provider of transnational education. In encouraging our international students to study in the UK, much more has to be done to increase the number of UK students who benefit from overseas work or study experiences as part of their university degree. As it is said, globally mobile students can be some of our most rewarding and powerful ambassadors, welcoming people to our outward-looking UK. I am also pleased that the Government recognise the important contribution made by students and academics from EU member states to the UK’s world-class universities.
The global UK must be a country that looks to the future. There is much at stake. The challenge now is to emerge from this period of uncertainty with a clear strategy coupled with a bold ambition for the sector’s future growth, and of course prosperity. Along with free trade agreements, such a strategy must enhance opportunities for UK higher education after Brexit but, alongside this, ensure that such agreements do not push back previous strong collaboration and expose UK universities to unnecessary risks. However, a modern university must be globally engaged—recruiting staff and students from across the world; making strong partnerships with international organisations; providing an intercultural education and thereby producing graduates with the experience to work across cultural boundaries; promoting international research; and producing outputs of international significance that have great impact. A bold forward-looking strategy must take advantage of the global reach of modern universities and therefore ensure that higher education plays a strategic role in the much-awaited future trade deals. Data confirms the increasing value of higher education as a major export industry; to lose that would be, at the very least, regrettable.
Importantly, this highlights the immense economic contribution of international students coming to study. It not just their economic benefit that is so invaluable; international students from the EU and beyond contribute to a diverse student body and a thriving society, culture and economy as well as on campus in local regions and across the whole UK. To achieve a key aim of the industrial strategy to drive up exports, universities have the potential to grow and sustain this market further, but we must streamline the visa process.
Universities have a huge and increasingly significant impact on the UK economy and jobs. Higher education in the UK is a world-class sector. Our universities rank among the best and produce highly regarded research, making them attractive to international students and staff. Their value is there for all to see.