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Leaving the EU: Tertiary Education

Volume 654: debated on Monday 4 February 2019

6. What assessment his Department has made of the effect on tertiary education of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. (908957)

Leaving the EU with a deal remains the Government’s top priority and that has not changed, but as a responsible Government we are preparing for every eventuality. We are considering all aspects of how exiting the EU might affect tertiary education. That includes consideration of participation in EU-funded programmes, future arrangements for migration, and access to student finance support.

The Minister will be aware that, per head of population, Scotland’s universities have won more Horizon 2020 funding than any other part of the UK as a whole. It has also outperformed Germany, which has won the biggest overall share of the programme investment. Will the Minister give those successful Scottish institutions a commitment and guarantee that funding for academic research will, at the very least, continue to be maintained at current levels?

On the Government’s commitments on Horizon 2020 funding, I point to my recent appearance at the Select Committee on Science and Technology. We have not only issued a Government guarantee but a guarantee extension to ensure that we protect all current programmes throughout their duration and, in fact, beyond 2020. We are working very closely with other programmes, such as the European Research Council and Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, which still need to be netted into the guarantee. I absolutely empathise with the hon. Gentleman’s point that we must ensure that the science community is protected under all eventualities.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, deal or no deal, we must ensure that we get the right balance of funding for tertiary education, universities and further education? Universities have done very well, but further education has experienced an 8% cut in per learner funding since 2010. That has had an adverse effect on East Kent College Group, which teaches 13,000 learners.

In 2017, the Prime Minister instigated a review of post-18 education, which is being led by Philip Augar. That report will be published shortly, in due course. As my hon. Friend says, it is important that we look at the entirety of the post-18 education world, and above all at the opportunities that need to be available for the student. This is not about pitching HE versus FE, but about ensuring that we create learning pathways so that when students wish to achieve a degree or level 4 or 5, the funding and opportunities are in place for them to succeed.

This year my son, like very many others, has had the privilege of studying in Europe as part of the Erasmus programme. Last Wednesday, the European Commission gave a guarantee that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, current Erasmus students would be able to complete their studies,

“provided that the United Kingdom continues to honour its financial obligations under the EU budget.”

Will the Minister confirm that in the event of no deal, his Government will honour their obligation and that our young people currently abroad will be able to complete their studies?

We are in close contact and working with the UK National Agency and the European Commission to ensure that in the event that the UK leaves the EU with no agreement in place, the Government’s guarantee on Erasmus will cover the payment of awards to UK applicants for all successful Erasmus+ bids submitted before the end of 2020. Successful bids are those approved directly by the European Commission or by the UK National Agency and ratified by the European Commission. On 29 January, we published on the website an updated technical notice stating the current position.

I thank the Minister for that answer. However, Universities UK has expressed serious concerns that, in the case of a no-deal Brexit, the Government will not commit to funding students who plan to study in Europe for the 2019-20 academic year. Unlike the Government, these young people are trying to plan what they are doing next year. Will the Minister confirm, first, whether Universities UK is right to be concerned? Secondly, how can he justify denying our young people such valuable opportunities?

I work closely with Universities UK and with Universities UK International and its director, Vivienne Stern, to allay their concerns. When it comes to the Government’s guarantee, all successful bids that have been approved by the European Commission will be guaranteed funding.

When the House comes to vote again on a deal that will protect Erasmus students not only under the withdrawal agreement but under the political declaration, perhaps the hon. Lady could say to Universities UK that she will now vote for a deal that will protect all Erasmus students.

I, too, welcome the fact that half the questions and half the time today have been spent on further education, and I also welcome the new higher education Minister to his place. I believe he is a scholar of Tudor England, which I suspect will serve him well considering how long higher education Ministers last in this Government—it is about the same as Henry VIII’s wives.

Will the Minister confirm that figures show there are 36,000 academics from other EU countries working in UK higher education, nearly one in five of the total academic workforce? Given the damage that a disastrous no-deal Brexit would clearly do to the sector, will he promise the House today that he will never be part of a Government who allow that to happen?

I refer to myself as a scholar with a small s, but when it comes to Henry VIII’s wives, I hope to see myself as more like Catherine of Aragon, who managed to last, I think, 27 years, rather than one of the later wives.

When it comes to ensuring protection for EU students, we have announced guarantees on student finance for EU nationals irrespective of the EU outcome. We have also provided a reassurance that everyone on a course will continue to be eligible for home fees status and student finance support from Student Finance England for the duration of their course. I believe that, even with a no-deal outcome, the Government have done the responsible and right thing, and I hope the hon. Lady will now do the responsible and right thing and walk through the Lobby with me on 14 February in support of the Prime Minister’s deal.