Safeguarding Research Collaborations and Scientific Excellence

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

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Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

I welcome Richard Lochhead to his new role.

In July 2017, the London School of Economics and Political Science’s cities centre published a report that contained the finding that Aberdeen could be the worst-hit city in the UK as a result of Brexit. The report’s authors concluded that, under a hard Brexit, economic output in the city would go down by 3.7 per cent and that, under a soft Brexit, it would be reduced by 2.1 per cent.

That is the stark reality that faces my constituents because Scotland is being taken out of the EU against its will, even though just over 61 per cent of the people of Aberdeen voted to remain in the EU. Let me say to Mr Mundell that I know where my interests lie: with my constituents.

The University of Aberdeen, which over the years has built a strong reputation as a research-intensive university with a strong international outlook, says that it is

“extremely concerned about the impact that Britain’s exit from the European Union will have on our research, student recruitment and the learning experience we offer. Obviously the possibility of a no-deal Brexit heightens these risks further.”

In February 2018, the then principal and vice-chancellor Sir Ian Diamond stated at a Westminster reception that the UK Government needed to clarify the rights of EU citizens in higher education—not just lecturers, but other staff such as language assistants and technicians—and their families to live and work in the UK. Now we are in November and, with each day, we are edging closer to a no-deal outcome, but we still have no more of an idea about what the future will bring for EU nationals who live in our communities.

Of course, the issue of citizenship and the right to remain extends beyond people who study or work in higher education. I am sure that, like me, other MSPs have had EU nationals contacting their offices for advice about Brexit. My constituency office window is full of adverts for upcoming EU citizenship events and is regularly updated as new events are announced. Indeed, the marine laboratory in Torry, which Tavish Scott mentioned, is very near my constituency office and has many Europeans among its staff.

As a result of Brexit, higher education institutions stand to lose talented students, devoted staff and vital access to EU funding programmes such as horizon 2020, which is now known as horizon Europe. Retaining access and membership of horizon Europe was described as “essential” by Universities Scotland and, according to the Royal Society of Scotland, should be “a priority” for the UK Government.

Some years ago, I was involved in the GILDED—governance, infrastructure, lifestyle dynamics and energy demand—project through the James Hutton Institute, which Tavish Scott also mentioned and which has one of its sites in my constituency. As part of that pan-European project, there was collaboration with institutions in Poland and the Netherlands. Now we are all fearful of the uncertainty, which is already damaging things. I understand that Universities UK is continuing to lobby the UK Government to make contingency plans in the event that access to such funding is lost. Perhaps the UK Government will use some of the supposed £350 million a week in savings that were emblazoned on the leave buses to help with the situation, but I am not holding my breath.

We can be proud that nine of Scotland’s universities are in the global top 200 for international outlook, as that demonstrates our appeal to students and academics from across the world. However, with Brexit, our universities stand to lose the opportunity to collaborate with other European universities; they also stand to lose students, who are worried about their right to study here. According to Universities and Colleges Admissions Service statistics, EU students coming to Scotland fell by 10 per cent in 2017. Can we blame them for being worried about the implications of Brexit and what it might mean for their right to study at our universities? It sends out the wrong message—that they are unwelcome—when the truth is that Scotland has always welcomed citizens from the EU and beyond with open arms.

Ross Greer and others have mentioned the importance of the Erasmus programme, which was championed by Winnie Ewing when she was a member of the European Parliament. My daughter benefited hugely from her year abroad—she is now bilingual and working in Paris. I brought my children up to believe that the world was their oyster; little did I believe that I was telling them a lie.

Our loss is other European universities’ gain. The centre for global higher education at University College London has reported that it became evident in February 2018 that European universities were using the uncertainty of Brexit to poach UK-based academics, with Germany in particular standing to benefit. The report notes that Germany sees Brexit as a “window of opportunity” to attract UK-based researchers, which is ironic considering the relentless promises about the opportunities of Brexit that we hear from the Conservative Government.

The real opportunities could be grasped by remaining in the European single market and the customs union. That would avert the need to consider any sort of contingency planning to protect our valued educational institutions from the damaging consequences of Brexit. Instead, not only is our higher education sector facing threats but, as we now know, the very being of the Scottish Parliament is being threatened by the shameful Tory Westminster Government.