Like colleagues, I welcome the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science to his post.
It is now almost 20 months since article 50 was triggered and the UK Government has still failed to negotiate what its former Brexit secretary thought would be the easiest deal in history. It is clear that the Prime Minister is paralysed by the in-fighting in her party and is too scared to take on the hard-right ideologues on her benches and in her Cabinet. One of the many areas of our society that are already suffering the consequences of this bizarre mix of incompetence and malice is our university sector and the wider research and education sectors here in Scotland.
We know that membership of the EU brings benefits such as funding and support for international research collaborations, the Erasmus+ programme and the immense boost that the right to European freedom of movement gives to both individuals and the institutions that they work for or with. We cannot pick and choose our favourite bits of the EU and hope to retain their full benefits without being a member. That is not how the EU works, but that seems to have passed the UK Government by. We saw that when Switzerland sought to restrict freedom of movement in 2014 and its participation in EU research programmes was immediately restricted.
Funding can be replaced by the Government, although there is little trust in the UK Government’s commitment to that, but the reputation and prestige that come with hosting huge EU-funded multinational research projects cannot be so easily replaced.
Switzerland never even implemented its restrictions on freedom of movement. It opted instead to negotiate a new agreement with the EU in return for restoring access to research programmes. Nonetheless, the vice-president for research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has said that it may take Swiss research institutes at least half a decade to recover the standing that they lost and to re-establish themselves globally. That was because of a two-year restriction, resulting from a decision that was not implemented. The UK faces full, complete, absolute and permanent—or at least long-term—removal from European freedom of movement. How can those parties—and it is more than just the Tories—that are committed to ending freedom of movement reconcile that commitment with their intention to retain access to EU research programmes?
Horizon 2020 funding is currently worth more than €200 million to Scottish research institutes. Research projects are also funded through European structural funds, of which we have received almost €1 billion in this funding cycle. EU citizens make up more than one in five of the research staff at our universities, and more than 20,000 students from the rest of the EU currently study in Scotland. I appreciate that the UK Government, after two years of unnecessary delay, has finally stated that EU citizens’ rights to stay in the UK will be secure, even if there is no deal. That provides some relief to EU citizens who are here, but only to some. It does not resolve the understandable level of distrust towards the Home Office, given its hostile environment policies and its typically staggering levels of incompetence.