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Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:07 pm on 6th December 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Bakewell Baroness Bakewell Labour 12:07 pm, 6th December 2018

My Lords, in supporting the Motion moved by my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon, that the withdrawal agreement and political declaration will do grave damage to the global influence of the United Kingdom, I want to take a long perspective—far longer, indeed, than the perspective referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble.

I want to go back to Bologna in 1088, where the first and oldest university in Europe was founded. It was the first institution of higher education and research in our continent, where a community of teachers and scholars came together to share their common interests. The Bologna academic charter of 1158 guaranteed the right of unhindered passage to a travelling scholar in the interest of education. It is what we today call academic freedom. It has been honoured for centuries and will be set in reverse by the current shallow and ignorant government proposals for Brexit.

History is long. From Bologna, the idea of the university spread, first to Paris, then to Oxford in 1167. That was when this mighty concept of the sharing and extending of knowledge was first formulated on these shores. Cambridge followed, then Glasgow, Dublin, St Andrews and Edinburgh. They shared their values with Europe. They explored the new enlightenment with Europe. These are places of ancient and precious traditions, shaped by their European heritage and by continuing flourishing. Witness the spectacular growth in numbers of new universities in the post-war years and the high percentage of our young people currently studying for degrees. This is indeed a long and proud heritage. Today Britain’s universities are world-renowned, internationally competitive and a major economic asset. They generate £13.1 billion of export receipts, and by their research and teaching contribute to the global world of cutting-edge discovery and scientific development.

The prime terms of exiting the EU are threatening this centuries-won status. Restraints on the movements of students and scholars are already damaging the richness of our tradition. In the university of which I am president, Birkbeck, 18% of staff is from the EU: there are 363 academic staff from Europe on our books. Their right to stay is now subject to checks, and the recruitment of EU students domiciled in this country is falling. Why are we doing this to institutions that bring nothing but sound values and honourable achievements to this country? The political declaration that is part of the Brexit proposals suggests that we,

“engage in dialogue … with the view to identifying opportunities to cooperate”,

and,

“explore ongoing cooperation between culture and education related groups”.

This is a wishy-washy wish list expressed in terms that do not seem to acknowledge what we already have.

Yet at the same time we are pulling out of prestigious enterprises that bear illustrious European names: the Erasmus scheme, the Galileo project—why would we want to be outside them? No one voted to turn our backs on the long and prestigious bedrock of our intellectual history. We should reject such proposals and salvage our proud reputation for scholarship and research.