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Leaving the EU: Higher Education in Wales

Volume 641: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2018

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of leaving the EU on the higher education sector in Wales.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.

Higher education is now devolved; Brexit, though, is not. As we have seen in the last few days, there are some people—just some in Wales—who are delighted to reverse the progress of devolution achieved with so much effort over the last 19 years of our Assembly’s life, delighted to relinquish power and responsibility, and happy to enfeeble our Assembly on the pretext of easing Brexit into the world. After the fine words of resistance, after the pledged solidarity with Scotland, they are glad to compromise on behalf of the Welsh nation without a fight. I am reminded of Idris Davies’ poems in The Angry Summer, particularly number 48, referring to the breaking of the triple alliance in 1921, “The Telephones are Ringing”. Perhaps some hon. Members were there at the time, or perhaps not. A few lines will suffice:

“The telephones are ringing

And treachery’s in the air.

The sleek one,

The expert at compromise

Is bowing in Whitehall.

And lackey to fox to parrot cries:

‘The nation must be saved.’

What is the nation, gentleman,

Who are the nation, my lords?”

When the smoke and the noise of Brexit have cleared, the actions of some people in Wales in yielding our powers to London will be seen clearly for what they are. Yes, the telephones are ringing and treachery is in the air.

This debate is doubly timely, being about Brexit and devolution, two of the major problems that have plagued the mainstream parties here for many years. This Government, with such great finesse, have brought down on their own feeble shoulders both problems simultaneously. Plaid Cymru has been consistent on devolution, of course, and on the EU as well. We were in favour of remaining and then in favour of continued membership of the customs union and the single market. I am gratified to see other parties now moving crab-like in our direction. That would be a real compromise, which would avoid many of the predicaments that now face us, particularly in respect of higher education.

This is the first debate specifically on Brexit and higher education in Wales. There is a danger that issues that are important in themselves, even vital to the future of our country, become obscured and forgotten in the morass of mind-numbing detail around Brexit.

In a debate in this Chamber sometime last autumn I asked the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), when he was merely a Wales Office Minister and had not been translated to greater things, what had happened to all the legislating we used to do on the economy, justice, benefits and pensions before we became obsessed with the fate of European Union regulations about the size and shape of fish fingers. His reply was that that was a good question. He said little else. Higher education is one of the vital issues to our country that may be overshadowed.

I have argued in this place that a thriving university sector, teaching, researching and applying that research, is central to the intellectual, moral and economic health of Wales. That has long been recognised. When we were last independent, a mere 600 years ago, the Pennal letter, sent by Owain Glyndŵr to the King of France in 1406, outlined, among other matters, his three key policies, one of which was to establish two universities, one in the north and one in the south. That was the time when great universities were being established throughout our continent, from Padua to Oxford and beyond. I sometimes wistfully imagine what our future would have been had that great ambition been fulfilled. As it was we were detained by other, less noble matters until the 19th century. Nevertheless, the long struggle to establish our universities with the support of working people throughout Wales—quarry families, colliers and others—shows clearly the value that we, as a Welsh society, place on education.

Enough of the history; let us turn to something that this Government really do understand—hard cash. Higher education contributed about £1.4 billion to the Welsh economy in 2017. Indirectly, it powered about a further £1.4 billion through related industries. In part, that was facilitated by the European Union through funding grants or loans to Welsh institutions and through the student mobility and research collaboration that freedom of movement enabled. In the rest of the UK, the private sector provides 45% of total research funding. In Wales, that drops to about 10%, which highlights the fragility of our economy and the greater importance of European money to Welsh institutions.

I will make some specific points about structural funds, research and collaboration, EU students and EU staff. First, we get money from structural and investment funds in Wales partly because of our poor economic performance over decades and to ensure social cohesion. Those moneys address the shortfall in innovation funding and in private investment in research and development in Wales.

Swansea University hugely expanded its Bay campus with £95 million of EU funding. The Cardiff University brain research imaging centre was opened using £4.5 million of EU funding. In my constituency, Bangor University secured £5 million of EU funding to help to create the centre for environmental biotechnology. All those projects were funded through Europe, and all are essential to the prosperity of our university sector. It is essential that that funding scheme, or an equivalent, continues undisturbed.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Before he moves on, I add that the Aberystwyth innovation and enterprise campus has also benefited from the European regional development fund.

My hon. Friend makes a telling point, which could be repeated for the seven universities throughout Wales. To a greater or lesser extent, they all depend on European money. It is essential that that funding stream continues undisturbed, because research, and particularly scientific research, does not follow the fads and fashions of what today’s politicians see as all-important or what tomorrow’s politicians ignore as old hat.

After we leave the EU, decisions on the allocation of those moneys should be taken by the Welsh Government. Any replacement funds should ensure that money is directed on the basis of need, as well as being place-based and Wales-specific. It is essential that money does not go disproportionately to the south, or rather to the south-east and London. We know full well what happens when funding allocations are not protected: the loudest voices, which are closest to the centre, drown out the rest. A simple example comes from a Labour Minister in the Welsh Assembly, who said, when talking about rail infrastructure in Wales, that Wales has 5% of the population, 11% of the rail network and 1.5% of the network infrastructure investment. The voices from Wales are weak; those from the south-east are strong. That is why the money must be protected.

I am not convinced that the UK Government had those basic principles of meeting need or protecting funding in mind when they designed their legendary UK shared prosperity fund. Perhaps the Minister can shed some light on that.

I have asked 12 questions about the shared prosperity fund, what the Government have decided and how they will operate it, and I have not had a single answer yet. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be good to hear today from the Minister exactly how it will work?

The hon. Lady makes the point that I was going to make next. In fact, when I asked a similar question in the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union, the answer persuaded me that I might have been better off researching unicorns.

Last week, in that Committee, I questioned Dr Main of the Campaign for Science and Engineering and Professor Brook of the Association for Innovation, Research and Technology Organisations—people who should know their business—about the shared prosperity fund. They both confirmed that they had not heard much about it since it was announced, so it is a fund in name only. We do know that it is under the remit of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which I think is significant, because that Ministry is England-only, which speaks for itself.

On research and collaboration in Wales, there has been historical under-investment in research infrastructure compared with the rest of the UK, and a lower level of science, technology, engineering and maths activity. A recent Royal Society report said that Wales has the lowest percentage of research infrastructure in Great Britain. It has benefited greatly from EU funding, however. In 2016-17, Welsh higher education institutions received about 19% of their research income from EU sources, compared with about 15% for other UK higher education institutions. We depend more heavily on them. In particular, Welsh higher education institutions received money from such programmes as Erasmus and Horizon 2020. In 2014-15, the total EU research grants and contracts income for Wales was approximately £46 million, which represented about 21% of the total research grants and contracts income in Wales for that year. Again, universities and the higher education sector in general in Wales have a greater dependence on those sources.

Horizon 2020 has a budget of about €70 billion for the period between 2014 and 2020. The Welsh higher education sector has been successful in winning funds from that highly competitive programme. Universities have accounted for nearly two thirds of the Welsh participation in Horizon 2020 so far. When the money is there we compete successfully, and universities do disproportionately better.

Interestingly, on Monday, the Prime Minister said that she wants us to be part of any future such schemes—the successor schemes of Erasmus and Horizon 2020. More surprisingly, she said that she was willing for us to pay, but that we should have a “suitable level of influence”. That exemplifies the unreal nature of the Government’s thinking. Those are EU programmes. We are leaving the EU. We will become a third country. In respect of Horizon 2020 and Erasmus, Times Higher Education has said that associate countries are not in the European Council or the European Parliament, and they have no say in the research budgets. The fantasy is that we will somehow leave, but stay in—that we will benefit and be able to fix the rules—but we will be a third country. At some point, the Government will collide with reality, and the sooner the better as far as I am concerned.

Now and again I get angry emails from frustrated Brexiteers, usually late at night, which say, “We’re leaving. Get on with it.” I only wish that the Government here would get on with it. Uncertainty is the most obvious feature of Brexit, for higher education as for everyone else, and that goes for people who are in favour of leaving and those who are in favour of remaining.

An alternative might be that the Welsh Government take charge, if they can be shaken awake on the matter. After all, Quebec, which is a province of Canada on the other side of the Atlantic, takes part in Erasmus+, so why not Wales? Needless to say, the Scottish Government are way ahead of us already, and are using their offices in Brussels, Berlin, Paris and Dublin to lead the charge. I am not sure whether we have an office anywhere apart from Cardiff these days.

Another strong pillar of our HE sector are the thousands of EU students who study in Wales and bring academic, economic and cultural benefits to our universities and our communities. That is particularly obvious in Bangor, where the population almost doubles and a large proportion of the students are from EU countries and other foreign countries. They bring enormous benefits. The latest figures for 2016-17 show that more than 6,000 EU national students were at HE providers in Wales, but applications are down. Perhaps the Minister can confirm the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ figure that there has been a drop of 8% this year.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that we are already seeing a financial impact of Brexit on our universities, in the reduction of the number of EU students? The excellent University of South Wales in my constituency had to propose laying off fully 5% of its staff last year, explicitly citing Brexit and the reduction in the number of EU students as the reason.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very telling point—the effects are with us already, even though we are still in.

There are also effects that are not so apparent in facts and figures, which are to do with the morale of lecturers and students from abroad and perhaps even their commitment to their work, in the face of offers that they might get from universities outside Wales and outside the UK. That effect is beginning to make itself apparent. In fact, it is one of the early signs of the impending Brexit vote hangover.

The Welsh Labour Government should give EU students who are starting courses in Wales now or in the near future some guarantees—for example on fees, loans and grants—to reassure them that Wales welcomes them to study and to contribute. The Welsh Labour Government should do that, but whether they will is yet another Welsh Labour mystery.

I come to the last pillar for today’s debate—staff from the EU who have chosen to research and teach in Wales. We have universities and individual departments of outstanding quality. That is no accident. We have built on our strengths, and EU staff and staff from other countries have been attracted here because of those strengths. The latest information I have shows that there are 1,355 staff from the EU at Welsh universities. They need to be reassured that they have a future with us, working at the forefront of their fields and building Wales’s future.

I have some brief questions for the Minister. What representations have the Welsh Government made regarding the design and implementation of the UK shared prosperity fund? I think we would all be glad to hear something about that. What representations have the Welsh Government made regarding Wales’s future participation in Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+? What discussions have Welsh Office Ministers had with the Home Secretary about immigration arrangements for EU students who might want to study in Wales? What assurances can the Minister give me that universities in Wales will still be able to attract and retain talented academics from the EU? Lastly and perhaps most importantly, will he give a guarantee that Wales will receive “not a penny less” after we leave the EU? He will recognise those words, as they were a promise by the Leave campaign.

We have great strength in our universities. We would be foolish in the extreme to allow a political vote, or a petty, clueless, split and confused Government here in London and a somewhat indifferent, somnolent one in Wales, to drag them down.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.

I thank the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) for securing this debate, because I, too, welcome the opportunity to discuss the impact of leaving the EU on the higher education sector in Wales. I think we all realise what an important issue this is.

The UK has a world-class higher education sector, and Welsh universities are an integral part of it. Including students in the Open University, almost 130,000 people were enrolled in higher education in Wales in 2016-17, and the fact that more than 20,000 of them came from overseas is testament to the quality of the education on offer. That quality is also demonstrated by the fact that half of Wales’s universities are ranked in the top 50 in the UK and in the top 500 worldwide by Times Higher Education.

We want to make sure that the UK remains a leader in this field after we leave the EU, and because higher education is devolved in Wales, the UK Government, the Welsh Government and Welsh stakeholders will all need to work together to ensure that that happens.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation has already convened a high-level working group of stakeholders in this sector to consider the implications of leaving the EU. It includes university leaders from across the whole of the UK, including the vice-chancellor of Cardiff University. Within my Department, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth recently chaired a roundtable with the leaders of the Welsh universities to hear their concerns. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has also convened an expert panel, which includes representation from the higher education sector in Wales. In addition, on a day-to-day level, policy teams from the Department for Education continue to engage with their counterparts in the devolved Administrations, including those in the Welsh Government.

At home, the Government’s industrial strategy offers many opportunities for researchers in universities in Wales and the rest of the UK. We envisage universities across the UK playing a key role in addressing the grand challenges identified as part of the strategy, in partnership with public and private sector stakeholders. As part of the industrial strategy, we have pledged to raise investment on research and development to 2.4% of GDP over the coming decade.

The industrial strategy challenge fund alone will invest £725 million in a range of programmes to boost innovation as part of its second wave, with the third wave due to launch next year. Institutions in Wales are already home to researchers working on projects in a number of areas that have the potential to transform our economy and society, and that tie into the industrial strategy in many ways. To give just one example, SPECIFIC—the Sustainable Product Engineering Centre for Innovation in Functional Coatings, which is based at Swansea University—is working on creating “active buildings” that will generate the electricity they need. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales visited the centre in Swansea last year and announced £800,000 of funding from the UK Government for the project.

We have been clear all along that we will continue to co-operate with the EU on matters of mutual interest, including scientific research and innovation, and cultural exchanges. Consequently, we have already announced that we are committed to the principle that UK-based universities and researchers can continue to take part in Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ for the lifetime of their projects, despite our departure from the EU. That was made clear in the 8 December joint report. Even in the event of a no-deal exit, which remains highly unlikely, that principle stands, and successful applications to Erasmus+ that were submitted while the UK was a member of the EU will continue, even if they have not been approved at the point at which we leave the EU.

It is much the same story for UK researchers taking part in Horizon 2020. We have guaranteed to underwrite the funding for all successful bids made by UK participants that were submitted before our departure from the EU. As the Prime Minister said in her Mansion House speech in March, we are committed to establishing a far-reaching co-operation agreement with the EU on scientific research and innovation, and to pursuing educational and cultural programmes. We look forward to full and comprehensive discussions with the EU about collaboration in these fields, about UK participation in EU programmes, and about new ways of fostering co-operation and dialogue between researchers and academics in the UK and EU member states.

May I throw in another project? I am sure that the Minister welcomes the collaborative work going on between the University of South Wales and Thales, which is obviously a big European company. They are jointly developing the cyber-graduates and the cyber-capability in Gwent, alongside the Welsh Government. Does he agree that it is absolutely vital that we keep up these relationships and this collaboration, which is in its early days?

I certainly agree, and that is exactly our ambition. As I said a moment ago, the Prime Minister has been very clear that she wants the UK to build that type of relationship. The project that the hon. Lady just mentioned sounds incredibly interesting; perhaps I could hear more about it from her in the future.

I am pleased to hear, once more, the guarantees about access to funding and programmes for institutions and individuals that had made bids prior to our leaving the EU. However, I take it that the corollary of the guarantee that the Minister has just offered is that there is absolutely no guarantee that once we have left the EU, any of those institutions, including Welsh universities, will necessarily have access to Erasmus+ or Horizon 2020 and their successors.

As I have already said, the Prime Minister made it very clear in her Mansion House speech that the UK is committed to establishing that relationship. We want to work with the EU on designing that agreement; we welcome full and open discussion about it. We are considering all sorts of ways in which the UK can participate in these EU programmes and in ways of facilitating new bilateral and multilateral collaborations with EU member states, as well as ways of opening channels of dialogue between the EU and UK experts in science and innovation. The future partnership paper published on 6 September explores how the UK and the EU can achieve that objective. We are determined to seek that agreement, and we will continue to pursue it.

On individual staff and students, we have listened and responded to the higher education sector’s concerns about their presence and role in the UK. In England, we have confirmed that current EU students, and those due to start their courses in 2017-18 and 2018-19, remain eligible for home fee status and tuition fee loans. I am pleased to say that the Welsh Government have done the same for those studying in Wales. As part of the withdrawal agreement with the EU, we have agreed that individuals resident in the UK before the end of the implementation period, including academics, will have the right to apply for leave to remain. If they subsequently apply to study at a UK university, they may also qualify for home fee status and student loans after the end of the implementation period, if they meet the eligibility criteria.

Going forward, we will continue to listen to the sector’s concerns, and the issues will be considered as part of the wider discussions on our relationship with the EU. Meanwhile, the British Council, working with our universities, will continue to promote colleges and universities in Wales and across the UK as world-class places to study and do research. The Department for International Trade is also helping higher and further education providers to establish and expand their presence in key markets abroad, and it will continue to do so.

The hon. Member for Arfon raised a few other points. First, on the structural front—I can see he is leaning forward in anticipation; I hope he is not disappointed—as we transition to longer-term arrangements, we will ensure that all parts of the UK are treated fairly and their circumstances are taken into account. We have promised to engage the devolved Administrations as we continue to develop the UK prosperity fund. I welcome the Welsh Government’s paper on regional funding. It is an important contribution to our work on EU exit.

I fully recognise the importance of EU funds to Wales. The guarantees set out by the UK Government show the importance we place on those funds, as does the position we have since reached with the EU on participating in the 2014-to-2020 EU programmes. Our manifesto was very clear in its commitment to creating the shared prosperity fund. We want it to be more effective than previous funds. Let us not forget that despite receiving £4 billion, Wales remained at the bottom of the gross value added table. We want this prosperity fund to be more effective, and to help Welsh universities.

I am conscious that time is running out, so I will move on. On student visas, the hon. Gentleman will know that we are considering the options for the future migration system very carefully. To help the Government make decisions on migration after the implementation period, they have commissioned the independent Migration Advisory Committee to report on the impact of exiting the EU on the UK labour market, and on how the UK’s immigration system should be aligned with a modern industrial strategy. That should be done by September this year. We have commissioned the committee to provide an objective assessment of the impact on EU and non-EU international students by September this year. Those are important opportunities for the sector to provide evidence, and I am pleased to say that the sector has been actively engaged in that process.

I will get back to the hon. Gentleman on a couple of the other points he raised. Time is running out, and I want to give him a much fuller answer than just one line; if it is agreeable to him, I will write to him.

We are determined to keep our higher education sector on the cutting edge, and to ensure that it continues to be a major player on the global stage. Welsh universities are very much part of that. I pay tribute once more to the hon. Gentleman and other Members who have taken part in the debate. I assure them that in this role, I will be an advocate for the higher education sector in Wales.

Question put and agreed to.