Safeguarding Research Collaborations and Scientific Excellence

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 7th November 2018.

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Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this afternoon’s debate.

Many of us have universities in our constituencies and regions: the University of St Andrews and the University of Stirling are in my region. I graduated with a degree from the University of Edinburgh, before gaining a doctorate at the University of Glasgow. My undergraduate roommate was from America, and I studied for a PhD alongside a student from Turkey.

Despite our being a small country in population terms, we have an impressive number of excellent universities and research institutions that attract talent from overseas. We have seen Scotland lead on research and innovation and work collaboratively with other universities, especially in the European Union. Scotland punches above its weight.

In December 2017, Universities UK highlighted the vital contribution that EU staff make to UK universities through its #brightestminds campaign. That included a collection of case studies highlighting the research and stories of leading EU academics who were working in UK universities, including in Scotland. It illustrated the world-class research that is carried out by European staff in the UK and how that could be hindered by further Brexit uncertainty.

Today’s debate focuses on scientific excellence. In 2015-16, 59 per cent of European Economic Area staff worked in departments that were defined by the Higher Education Statistics Agency as science, engineering or technology, which are all positive growth areas in our economy.

I am sure that academics in members’ regions have been raising concerns, and that members in the chamber this afternoon are well aware of the potential impact of Brexit on our higher and further education sector.

Many members who have spoken today took part in the debate that was held by the then Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations committee following our inquiry into Erasmus+. Despite the fact that the debate took place in May, and negotiations have been continuous, many of the concerns still apply today. The future of Erasmus+, along with horizon Europe, will have a significant impact on our further and higher institutions and our leading research institutions.

The committee’s report into Erasmus+ found that many organisations and sectors are particularly reliant on the funding and opportunities that the programme provides, so losing their ability to participate could have a significant impact. The committee found that the Department for Exiting the European Union had failed to produce any analysis into the role and value of Erasmus+. In the light of the UK Government’s lack of activity, we urged the Scottish Government to conduct such analysis for Scottish institutions, and to explore the possibility of using existing structures, such as Education Scotland and the British Council Scotland, to develop a framework for continued participation beyond 2020.

I note that the Conservative amendment highlights the Prime Minister’s decision to commit to continued membership of Erasmus+ until 2020, but that is only a one-year extension. Our universities have to be able to commit to forward planning beyond that extension period, so I hope that the minister can outline in his closing remarks the work that the Government has undertaken to explore other options.

There is no doubt that just as Brexit risks the future of Erasmus+, so it risks the ability and ease with which collaborative research is carried out. Horizon 2020 funding accounts for hundreds of projects across 89 collaborating countries and more than 2,000 organisations. Scottish HEIs receive 13 per cent of the UK share of that funding, which accounts for 9 per cent of our total research funding. That funding is vital, so we must find ways to continue to contribute to and benefit from its successor programme, horizon Europe.

Universities Scotland makes it clear that

“if Scotland is to retain its outstanding reputation for delivering world-class research, with worldwide impact, then membership of Horizon Europe is essential.”

It must go beyond simply being members; it must be about informing the programme’s development and ensuring that our universities and researchers are able to take advantage of the grants, the networks and the data that are available. That will be difficult as we become a third partner. Until we have a deal or—at the very least—guarantees from Westminster and Brussels of the UK’s continued involvement, as with Erasmus+, there is limited scope for our universities to forward plan.

We must also heed the warnings of leading academics who, last month, wrote an open letter referring to the “dire consequences” that are facing Scottish higher education as Brexit and, in particular, the ending of free movement risk the already well-established co-operation opportunities that are open to academics, students, researchers and scientists.

Moreover, as our students want to go to Milan or Barcelona to learn and work, so students from across Europe see Scotland as a popular destination of choice and want to come here to learn in our renowned and respected universities and research facilities. We should not be closing a door on the collaborative work that can drive research and benefit the country as a whole.

Last week, Professor Alan Manning, who is the chair of the UK Government Migration Advisory Committee, gave evidence to the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee. What he said did not fill me with confidence. The advisory committee’s recent report on international students lays out, in no uncertain terms, the impact of Brexit on students and on our universities, stating:

“We do not, though, see any upside for the sector in leaving the EU: any barriers to student mobility are likely to have a negative impact”.

It is therefore disappointing that, despite acknowledging this, the MAC explicitly called for the UK Government not to introduce a separate post-study work visa.

The fresh talent initiative, which was introduced by Jack McConnell and the then Labour-led Executive, had a clear positive impact on student recruitment and retention.

I was part of the cross-party steering group on post-study work that was brought together by the then Minister for Europe and International Development, Humza Yousaf, and which recently lobbied the UK Government for the post-study work visa’s reintroduction. The group has been united in our approach. It was clear to us that, given Scotland’s slower population growth, the need to expand our workforce and the existing skills shortages in certain sectors, the provision of opportunities for non-EU international graduates in Scotland is vital.

The ending of free movement for EU students will make the situation even more acute. According to Universities Scotland, more than 12 per cent of staff in Scotland’s HEIs and 16 per cent of postgraduate researchers are from the EU. Scotland’s EU workforce is young and is concentrated in academic roles, particularly in science.

At last week’s meeting of the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee, the Migration Advisory Committee’s chair talked about the UK Government’s ambition for a high-skills, high-wage economy. If we are to achieve that, knowledge exchange and increasing intellectual capacity are key. Success in those areas relies on international engagement. The university and research sector must be listened to and its needs positively responded to if we are to avoid damaging that important sector.