In 63 days, the United Kingdom’s new relationship with the EU will begin. It will be a weakened relationship that, in the referendum of 2016, Scotland made abundantly clear that we do not want.
For our colleges, universities, researchers and learners, that matters greatly. They have benefited greatly from our membership of the EU, which has brought access to funding, talent and ideas. Our participation in programmes such as horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ have seen our institutions secure high levels of research funding and attract large numbers of students to study here. Likewise, many of our students have gone to live and study in other countries.
I had hoped to come to Parliament to report real and encouraging progress with the post-Brexit arrangements to continue our relationship with the EU, and to outline how Scotland will benefit from successor schemes. Instead, I have to say that we remain largely in the dark, and all the benefits that we have enjoyed for decades remain under serious threat as we head towards the end of the year. There remains little clarity from the UK Government on what it is thinking or what it hopes to achieve by then, and, as we all know, the clock is ticking.
To be clear, Brexit is potentially very damaging for our colleges and universities. It will lead to less funding and it will put off prospective researchers and students—exactly the sort of bright minds that Scotland needs—from coming to our shores. I share the views of Paul Nurse, a Nobel laureate and former president of the Royal Society, who said in July that the UK Government needs to make
“a concerted ... effort to change its rhetoric to be more welcoming, to fully embrace the future and think less about the past, and to engage the many young people and scientists who were overwhelmingly against Brexit.”
Paul Nurse has good reason to raise the alarm.
A recent report by the Wellcome Trust sets out that there will soon be an up-front cost of more than £13,000 for a family of four on a five-year UK global talent visa, in contrast to a £1,000 fee for the same family under the French talent visa. Although the global talent visa is a step in the right direction, aimed at reducing potential barriers in the new visa system for world-class academics, the exorbitant cost shows that the UK Government is out of touch.
It is no wonder that EU researchers are now choosing to leave and, in some cases, take their EU research grants with them. Of course, many will now choose not come to Scotland in the first place.
Those research grants come from programmes such as horizon 2020 and its successor programme, horizon Europe, which are of vital importance to Scotland and our researchers. They help us to foster invaluable partnerships across Europe and the world. Across disciplines and sectors, they provide opportunities for all experience levels, from early career researchers to Nobel prize winners.
Since horizon 2020 began in 2014, Scottish organisations have won €711 million. Scotland has won a higher proportion of funding relative to population than any other part of the UK. In fact, Scotland produces 12 per cent of the UK’s research with 8 per cent of the UK’s population and 10 per cent of its researchers. That was outlined in the Universities Scotland submission for this statement, which I am sure that all members have read. That is truly an excellent track record.
I am sure that we are all aware that it is not just a matter of funding alone. The Scottish Science Advisory Council’s report “A Metrics-Based Assessment of Scotland’s Science Landscape (2007-2016)”, which was published last year, demonstrated that research collaboration with EU countries brings the greatest academic impact, with six out of 10 of Scotland’s top international collaborating countries being in the EU. It is for those reasons that we want Scotland to remain involved with horizon.
In the immediate term, we have asked the UK Government to guarantee equitable funding to horizon 2020 participants in Scotland and to guarantee no funding gaps. We have urged it to associate as soon as possible, to fully fund continued participation in all parts of horizon Europe that are open to third countries and to plug all funding gaps where alternative schemes may be required if the UK becomes a third country.
In comparison with the clarity of our position on that issue, the UK Government’s approach to horizon Europe has been pretty murky at best. We had to wait until July this year for a clear public statement of the UK ambition for association, and key information is too often held back from us, such as the actual costs expected for horizon participation, or the cost of any alternative. At the same time, sufficient attention is not given to devolved options and devolved possibilities for alternative schemes.
I welcome, of course, the good engagement with us by the UK Government and UK Research and Innovation on the design of the discovery fund, which will be a key driver of academic excellence in international collaboration. However, the discovery fund is just one of three strands of alternatives for research collaboration that may be required. We have had minimal engagement by the UK Government recently on the other two. I think that we can all agree that that suggests a haphazard approach at best to information sharing or a selective approach at worst. That is no way to help our institutions to plan for the future in these very challenging times.
Just as horizon has been a key programme for our institutions in attracting funding and researchers to come to our shores, Erasmus+ has done the same for students. In facilitating the mobility of individuals across Europe—whether that be for learning, teaching or working—Erasmus has come to signify to many of us what is good about the EU. It brings people together, allows us to exchange cultures and ideas, and fosters a wider sense of community and belonging between the nations of Europe, and Scotland does exceptionally well from it. We attract proportionally more students from across Europe than any other part of the UK, and we send proportionally more students abroad through the scheme than any other part of the UK.
Between 2014 and 2018, our institutions secured over €90 million in Erasmus funding and, just this month, we have learned that the European Commission has confirmed a 55 per cent increase in the programme’s budget, which is now sitting at over €22 billion. It should therefore come as no surprise that we want Scotland to remain a member of Erasmus.
We have made our position clear to the UK Government time and again. We have provided it with evidence that shows in no uncertain terms the economic and social benefits that the programme brings to Scotland, but we have still to receive confirmation that that evidence has been used in the UK Government’s own assessment of the programme. I have also sent letters to the UK Minister for Civil Society and DCMS, Baroness Barran, and the UK Minister of State for Media and Data, John Whittingdale, concerning the incredibly important youth and community learning and development aspects of Erasmus, and I have yet to receive answers to them.
Although the UK Department for Education has now adopted our position that all mobilities at all levels should be funded fairly—we had a long debate about that for many months—the UK Treasury refuses to accept that. It tells us that, although we may not remain a part of the EU programme, the UK will develop its own version—a better version—that stretches right across the globe. In reality, we can expect a very pale imitation of the real thing. We are being presented with a replacement programme that may see Scotland’s funding for mobility cut by more than 50 per cent and support for our colleges, schools and community groups severely reduced and in some cases removed all together. Groups like Royston Youth Action, which I met earlier in the year, have been undertaking life-changing, transformational work through Erasmus.
Additionally, devolution will be ignored. If the UK Government fails to associate to Erasmus+ and looks to deploy the replacement scheme, it will, if it gets its way, prevent the Scottish Parliament from having any say in how that scheme is run in Scotland. Worryingly, UK ministers have refused to rule out using the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill to foist inferior schemes on Scotland, which would be completely unacceptable.
No matter the eventual outcome, however, I hope that we can agree that Brexit will be bad for Scotland. At this stage, it remains to be seen whether the EU programmes that are so vitally important to our colleges and universities will be part of any such deal.
It is in that context that the Scottish Government has been working closely with our sectors to prepare as best we can. We are considering, for example, the introduction of a new scholarship scheme to help preserve the bonds between our nearest neighbours and ourselves. We are continuing to speak with our European friends and reiterating that, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, we want to continue to work with our EU partners through research collaboration. We continue to impress upon the UK Government the urgent need to confirm association to horizon Europe and Erasmus+, and, as members will know, we have guaranteed that EU nationals who choose to make their home in Scotland by the end of this year and are successful in gaining either settled or pre-settled status will continue to have access to our generous student support package, including the home tuition fee rate.
Those actions show our commitment to internationalism and our view that that remains a key strength of higher and further education in Scotland. However, despite those efforts, it can be easy to give way to despair in the face of such dire-looking prospects. The consequences for horizon Europe and Erasmus+ illustrate that Brexit, and even worse, a no-deal or poor-deal Brexit, is an act of self-sabotage that will cause severe injury to some of Scotland’s most important institutions, the life chances of current and future generations and the Scottish economy. That is the last thing that our colleges, universities and young people need on top of the impact of the global pandemic.
The devolved Administrations have been left in the waiting room outside, while the UK Treasury, the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are inside Whitehall offices deciding the fate of those hugely important programmes. As we continue to pursue a no-detriment policy for EU programmes in terms of funding and participation, we will use the coming weeks to do all that we can to protect Scotland’s interests and prevent the UK Government from inflicting untold damage on our relationship with Europe.
I thank the Parliament for the opportunity to provide an update on those important issues.
The minister will now take questions on the issues that were raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions. I ask members who wish to ask a question to press their request-to-speak button now.
Before I move on, I say that I am not sure whether Dean Lockhart, who is down to ask a question, is in the chamber or will be joining us remotely. [
.] I see that Liz Smith will ask the question. [
.] That pigeon has not arrived yet.
I call Kenneth Gibson, to be followed by Liz Smith.
I welcome the minister’s statement. What recent discussions has he had with his UK Government counterparts regarding the UK’s future involvement in the Erasmus+ programme, given that his letters are being ignored? Does he share my concerns that any UK alternative that is being considered at Westminster will not go far enough, and that we could lose out on the next funding programme for Erasmus+, which is set to double in size to €30 billion for the 2021-2027 programme?
I have had numerous conversations and meetings about Erasmus with the UK Minister of State for Universities and my devolved Administration counterparts. We continue to hammer home the point that during the referendum in 2016 we were given the assurance that Scotland would not lose out because of Brexit, yet here we are, facing a situation in which our students, young people and institutions—universities and colleges—are set to lose out on a significant amount of resources and experiences.
As Kenneth Gibson said, it is also the case—ironically, at a time when we would have had an increased budget coming to Scotland for the Erasmus programme and, potentially, the horizon 2020 programme—that we face a scenario in which we will get less than we had before. That is absolutely unacceptable.
We all do.
I thank the minister for advance sight of his statement. It was just that—a lengthy statement of some very well-rehearsed views on Brexit and the UK Government. We have all heard them in the chamber many times.
However, the minister made some perfectly valid points about horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ and what will come next. I, too, want to see progress on those programmes, and the universities that I speak to want it, as well.
I know that Mr Lochhead has frequent and regular meetings with the UK universities minister. My understanding is that those meetings are productive, and that he and his officials have participated in domestic-alternative workshops on a number of key issues. He will have ample opportunity to convey his concerns directly in those meetings to the UK Government, and I commend him for doing so.
However, I will ask additional questions on the substance of what he has talked about today. Can the minister confirm that the funding savings that result from the decision to remove home status for EU students in Scotland will be reallocated in Scottish budgets to lift the unfair cap on Scotland-domiciled students?
Can he confirm that he will support Scottish universities that want to partake in UK alternative schemes that will replace horizon 2020 and Erasmus+?
Also, as we know that his Government recently turned down an offer to participate in a UK-wide scheme to assist our universities, which are in dire need, can he confirm that he is still positively working, and committed to working constructively with the UK Government on any future higher education funding schemes?
There were a lot of questions in that.
We have had reasonable engagement with the UK Government throughout this year. However, it is often a matter of its hearing what we say but not necessarily listening to us. The decisions are made by the UK Treasury, which objects to some of the solutions that have been proposed by Scotland—and, I understand, by the other devolved Administrations—to ensure that we can have continuity in those vital programmes.
On the ceasing of EU students paying home fees in Scotland, we have already said that that money remains in the higher education budget.
On working with our universities on any UK alternative schemes, of course we will work with them to access those. We are saying that the alternative schemes are going to be very inferior to what we have at the moment, and will not necessarily be suited to Scottish circumstances, the needs of Scotland’s research base or, in the case of Erasmus, to our young people. That is a real concern.
We are going to end up in a much worse position post-Brexit than when we were in Europe and, indeed, than we were promised by the UK Government. That is an unacceptable situation.
Not at all. Thank you, Presiding Officer.
Let me agree with pretty well everything that the minister said in his statement. Brexit is a disaster. It will impact negatively on our universities, colleges, staff and students in all the ways that he laid out. The Tory Government has completely failed to develop or agree the successor arrangements that we so badly need to be in place—and, indeed, any post-Brexit arrangements with the European Union. It is absolutely the Tory Government’s fault, and the situation is dreadful. But—we need to hear from the minister what he is going to do to address the threat, if he has to.
Will the minister tell us how the Scottish Government will step up in order to secure research funding for our universities and employability courses for colleges? What arrangements is it planning to allow exchange of staff and students, should we fall out of Erasmus? It will take more than a scholarship scheme to protect those critical sectors. It is not his fault, but it is his responsibility.
There is always a “but”. I am happy to answer the question, however.
Scotland has a lot of fans in the European Union, and we have had tremendously positive feedback from Germany and other countries that want to work closely with Scotland, irrespective of what happens.
The resources that will be available for us to take forward such initiatives and programmes will clearly be extremely limited, because the UK Government holds the purse strings. It also has the obligation to ensure that there is no detriment to Scotland from Brexit; it promised as much to the people of Scotland, its universities, colleges, young people and researchers, so it must deliver on that promise.
I commend the universities, which have put a lot of effort into setting up bilateral arrangements with our European counterparts. That process is difficult and is not nearly as good as what we would have with full participation in Erasmus and horizon 2020. We support those efforts and will continue to do so before Brexit.
As I said before, we have a few weeks—two months—left to ensure that the UK Government sticks to its commitments, and associates us with Erasmus and horizon 2020 for full participation.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I welcome the minister’s statement. Scotland has a strong global reputation for punching above its weight in production of world-class research. We know that EU citizens who work in Scotland via our membership of the European Union have strengthened that research.
What actions has the Scottish Government taken to protect that research collaboration with Europe, since the UK Tory Government refuses to provide any clarity on our future involvement with horizon 2020?
In response, can I say that I very much welcome Kenneth Gibson’s second question. [
I assure Kenneth Gibson that I have been in contact with other European Union countries to explain that Scotland is absolutely determined to continue our international collaboration. As I said in my answer to Iain Gray, we are getting positive feedback from other European countries that value very much their collaborations with Scottish institutions. We will do everything that we can within devolved powers to support those collaborations. As I said before, we have a few weeks, or two months, left for the UK Government to deliver on its obligations. Otherwise, enormous damage will be inflicted on our universities, research base and young people.
I will continue to do what I think is best for Scotland’s young people, in line with our commitment to ensuring that those kinds of programmes continue. We would prefer to have had the opportunity to have our own unilateral relationship with Erasmus and horizon 2020, even as a devolved country. As Liz Smith might be aware, Her Majesty’s Paymaster General wrote on 13 July to Michael Russell, the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, and said:
“I confirm that the UK Government will not be negotiating separate participation for individual devolved administrations”, so that route was unfortunately blocked off because of Scotland’s constitutional status and the attitude of the Tory Government in London.
We will, clearly, look for any opportunity to ensure that international collaboration with students in Europe continues, as well as inward and outward mobility.
The Erasmus programme, which my mother Winnie Ewing was instrumental in getting off the ground when she was MEP for the Highlands and Islands, follows on from a centuries-old enriching tradition of Scots students studying at European universities.
Can the minister advise how many students will be impacted by the UK Government’s pulling the plug on Erasmus? Is not it the case that continued membership of Erasmus would be yet another example of the advantages of independence?
I thank Annabelle Ewing for raising the tremendous legacy of Madame Ecosse, Winnie Ewing, with regard to Erasmus, which has been an enormously valuable programme for Scotland. As I have said, we have taken advantage of the programme more than any other part of the UK has.
In the context of Annabelle Ewing’s question, it is important to point out that the UK Government appears to focus on Erasmus as a programme for higher education students. However, in Scotland, as well as higher education students, people from youth organisations, colleges and other walks of life, including apprentices, have all taken massive advantage of Erasmus.
Under the current proposals, albeit that they are vague and we cannot pin them down, there is a huge danger that the UK Government is proposing that any future scheme will be focused on higher education students and not on young people generally, who have benefited enormously from the scheme. Annabelle Ewing has made the very important point that, of course, if Scotland were to rejoin Europe as an independent country, our young people would regain those massive benefits from that new constitutional status.
I hope that this will not come to pass, but in the event of leaving the shared programmes, what is the Scottish Government’s strategy to retain and recruit international academics and students? The minister mentioned a scholarship programme. Will that be part of a wider-reaching approach? What discussions is he having with the Minister for Public Finance and Migration about the importance of higher and further education?
The Scottish Government very much wants to continue our international links with other European countries and to let our young people, researchers and others benefit from that. However, we do not have immigration powers or the budgets that we were promised would be passed to Scotland post-Brexit for the Erasmus and horizon programmes in terms of no detriment if we were to vote for Brexit as a UK state—never mind Scotland’s opposition to it—and we do not have foreign affairs powers. We need the UK Government to deliver for Scotland, our young people and our colleges and universities. We will look at scholarships and what we can do within devolved powers, but the real benefits will be secured by the UK Government fulfilling its promises.
Does the minister agree that the Scottish Parliament has rejected the UK Government’s attempts to override devolution by pushing through the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill? He will be aware that the UK Secretary of State for Education has refused to rule out interfering in Scotland’s free tuition fees after Brexit and, after years of refusing to back free tuition for Scottish students, it comes as no surprise that the Scottish Tories will always follow behind their UK leaders. Does the minister agree that the only way that Scotland can continue to protect free education is by becoming an independent country?
It is a real concern for the Parliament, for all parties, that we are in a situation just now in which the UK Government has not ruled out using the internal market bill to foist an inferior Erasmus scheme on Scotland. We should all be concerned about that, as MSPs elected by the people of Scotland to protect devolution. As George Adam says, it is no wonder that support for independence in Scotland has gone up to 58 per cent or thereabouts in the opinion polls, because the real examples of how real people will lose out from Brexit, something that we did not vote for, are issues such as Erasmus and the Horizon research investment moneys that underpin the Scottish economy. That will only fuel the case for Scottish independence and such issues will be used to illustrate why we need our own voice in Europe.
I note with sadness but no surprise what the minister said about the UK Government refusing to negotiate on behalf of devolved nations who wish to fully participate in schemes such as Erasmus. Given that, will the Scottish Government use—or has it already used—some of the good will that Scotland currently has across Europe to make direct application and a direct request to the European Union for us to participate to the greatest extent possible in such schemes?
Yes. I thank Ross Greer for his question and give an absolute commitment that the Scottish Government will continue to have a dialogue with the European Commission, the European Union and all European countries to say that we want to continue that cross-European collaboration and have student exchange programmes and research collaboration, which are so valuable to Scotland. We have enormous good will in Europe and we will capitalise on that as much as possible to protect the interests of future generations.
It is an important point. When I met the young people at Royston Youth Action in Glasgow they stirred up my emotions when they spoke to me about how taking part in Erasmus benefited their lives and changed their perspectives. Those are the kind of people who will lose out if we do not have proper participation in future Erasmus programmes, not just for higher education university students but for people from youth organisations and colleges, apprentices and others who have benefited in the past. Rona Mackay is right to highlight the fact that young people will lose out and that it is an affront to democracy because they did not want this and they did not vote for it.
Ending freedom of movement and making our country less open through barriers and restrictions will hurt Scotland’s world-class academic institutions. The minister said that more and more
“EU researchers are now choosing to leave.”
Research by Liberal Democrats revealed that, at the end of last year, almost 2,500 EU academics had already left Scottish universities.
With regard to the loss of talent and expertise, and what further loss there might be, what work has been done to quantify and monitor that to inform future decision making?
Beatrice Wishart makes an important point. We know from the feedback from our institutions that many researchers have chosen to leave, and in some cases to take their research grants with them to other parts of Europe.
We have to remember that Scotland’s world-leading institutions—our universities and colleges—are built on the successful relationship that they have had with Europe. As we go forward, therefore, we should all be concerned about the loss of that investment from Europe. In addition, our nation’s reputation in research and science has been built on successfully gaining investment from horizon 2020 and other programmes. We will pay attention to that aspect.
Of course, the one thing that we cannot measure is how many bright minds and leading academics from across Europe have chosen not to apply for jobs in Scotland because of Brexit. We know that that is the case, but it is difficult to quantify, and it is such a shame that it is happening.
The minister spoke at some length on research collaboration. Can he clarify what proportion of that collaborative research work takes place with institutions in the rest of the UK? What is the Scottish Government doing to support Scottish universities to grow collaboration with institutions across the rest of the United Kingdom?
Jamie Halcro Johnston—although he is not coming from the same direction as me on this topic—raises an important point, in that we have other sources of research moneys in the UK. We are therefore paying close attention to the UK Research and Innovation funds, as it is really important that Scotland maintains its disproportionate benefit from those funds as we move forward; we have seen some changes taking place there on which we have to keep a close eye. I assure Jamie Halcro Johnston that we are in regular touch with UKRI and the other research funds that are available to Scottish institutions to make sure that Scotland can maintain its fair share of those funds.
Leaving aside today’s specific debate, Scotland currently supports international collaboration and scholarships across the globe. One example is the very successful Saltire scholarships; we have literally thousands of applications for the number of Saltire scholarships to support students from India, Pakistan and various other countries around the world to study in Scotland and live here for a while, and they take back enormous good will from Scotland when they go back to their home countries.
We have to remain an international, outward-looking country, and attract students and talent from Europe and the rest of the world at the same time.
The minister rightly points to the loss of research funding as one of the biggest consequences of Brexit, but Audit Scotland, in its most recent report on higher education finances, pointed out that publicly available funding domestically provides only 80 per cent cost recovery for research undertaken by our universities.
Surely any response to these issues needs to acknowledge and address that point first and foremost?
Daniel Johnson highlights a number of challenges that are faced by further and higher education in Scotland, which have been compounded by the current global pandemic. He will be aware that we have asked the Scottish Funding Council to review the sustainability of further and higher education in Scotland at this pivotal moment. With the world economy changing, demographic challenges, the global pandemic and Brexit, there are a number of issues that we have to get right as we go forward to maintain Scotland’s world-leading reputation.
Daniel Johnson will be aware that we allocated an extra £75 million of research funds to Scotland’s universities a few months ago in response to the global pandemic. That was warmly welcomed by the sector, and it is a good illustration of this Government’s commitment to maintaining Scotland’s international reputation as a centre of science and research excellence.
That concludes questions on the impact of EU exit on Scotland’s further and higher education sectors. I added in an extra five minutes as there was a wee bit of a kerfuffle in the middle—for those who were not here, it was not much of a kerfuffle.