Amendment 38

Part of European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Committee (3rd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 16th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 2:45 pm, 16th January 2020

My Lords, I am pleased to respond to this amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and I will try to respond the comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, the noble Lords, Lord Wigley and Lord McNicol, the noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Coussins and Lady Blower.

I appreciate that in recent days there has been a great deal of interest in, and confusion about, the UK’s participation in the next Erasmus+ programme. International exchanges are strongly valued by students and staff across the education sector. That is why we published our international education strategy in March 2019, setting out our ambition to increase the value of education exports to £35 billion a year, and to increase the total number of international students hosted by UK universities to 600,000 by 2030. The numbers of international students and EU applications are at record levels. The total number of international students, EU and non-EU combined, studying in the UK increased from 442,000 in 2016-17 to 458,000, and the most recent figure is 486,000 for 2018-19.

The most recent mobility analysis shows that Erasmus accounted for less than half of all mobility activities. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and the noble Lord, Lord McNicol: there is evidence that students who have spent time abroad as part of their degree are more likely to achieve better degree outcomes, improved employment prospects, enhanced language skills and improvements in their confidence and well-being. I must gently point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, however, that it was a Labour Government who removed the requirement that modern foreign languages be a compulsory subject. As soon as that happened, participation collapsed and we have fought hard over the last nine years to increase it.

I would like to clarify the Government’s position and explain why the proposed new clause is unnecessary. As several noble Lords have said, the Prime Minister made it clear at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday that we will continue to participate in the existing programme. Our future participation will be subject to our negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship, but we have in our elected Prime Minister, almost uniquely, a person steeped in European culture. He was educated in Brussels for part of his childhood, at the European School, and is bilingual in French. This is not a person who is going to turn his back on European education and its institutions.

We believe that the UK and European countries should continue to give young people and students opportunities to benefit from each other’s best universities. Our exit from the EU does not change this. As several noble Lords have said, we are not leaving Europe. The withdrawal agreement ensures that UK organisations, students, young people and learners will be able to continue to participate fully in the remainder of the current programme.

On the question of future participation in the next Erasmus programme, which runs from 2021 to 2027, we have been clear that we are open to continued co-operation on education and training with the European Union. We remain open to participation in the programme, but the amendment is not necessary. The next generation of EU programmes, including the proposed regulation for Erasmus 2021-2027, is still being discussed in the EU and has yet to be finalised. How can we comment on something that does not yet exist? The existing scheme is nearly seven years old and as the noble Baronesses, Lady Blower and Lady Coussins, said, the new programme will be different. It will be bigger and, until we see the substance of those proposals, we simply cannot be sure what the next stage of the Erasmus programme will look like. On this basis, it is not realistic for the Government to commit ahead to participation in a programme yet to be defined.

As set out in the political declaration, we have said that if it is in the UK’s interests we will seek to participate in some specific EU programmes as a third country. This includes Erasmus+ but this will of course be a matter for upcoming negotiations arising from our future relationship with the EU. We are considering a range of options with regard to the future of international exchange and collaboration on education training, including potential domestic alternatives. This is a significant moment in our history. In two weeks’ time, we will begin to pivot to become a more outward-facing country. We do not need just an EU university scheme but a much wider one.

I hope that we will have a global programme, encompassing all continents. We have many small schemes. Time is too short here to list them all but I will ask officials to attach an addendum to Hansard. I shall mention one: the Chevening scholarships scheme, which offers some 1,600 postgraduate scholarships and fellowships for potential future leaders. Last year, we doubled the number of scholars coming from Argentina. To celebrate this, I held a dinner for them in Lancaster House and was joined by the Argentinian ambassador—and before noble Lords worry about a taxpayer-funded junket, I can reassure them that I paid for this myself. I did this because I want Britain to have a wider window on the world.

This Government will look carefully at all available opportunities to fund international co-operation on education matters, including with the EU. I hope this explanation demonstrates why the proposed amendment is not necessary and I ask that the noble Lord, Lord Storey, withdraws it.