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Draft European University Institute (EU Exit) Regulations 2022

Debated on Tuesday 15 November 2022

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: †Sir George Howarth

Ali, Tahir (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)

† Britcliffe, Sara (Hyndburn) (Con)

† Buckland, Sir Robert (South Swindon) (Con)

† Crouch, Tracey (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con)

† Grundy, James (Leigh) (Con)

† Halfon, Robert (Minister of State, Department for Education)

† Jenkinson, Mark (Workington) (Con)

Monaghan, Carol (Glasgow North West) (SNP)

† Moore, Robbie (Keighley) (Con)

† Morrissey, Joy (Beaconsfield) (Con)

† Offord, Dr Matthew (Hendon) (Con)

Smith, Cat (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)

† Smith, Greg (Buckingham) (Con)

† Tarry, Sam (Ilford South) (Lab)

† Twist, Liz (Blaydon) (Lab)

† Western, Matt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)

† Yasin, Mohammad (Bedford) (Lab)

Abi Samuels, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 15 November 2022

[Sir George Howarth in the Chair]

Draft European University Institute (EU Exit) Regulations 2022

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the draft European University Institute (EU Exit) Regulations 2022.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George.

The primary purpose of the statutory instrument is to reflect in domestic law that the UK is no longer a member of the European University Institute Convention. Our membership ceased when we left the EU. The instrument ensures that no rights, powers, liabilities, obligations, restrictions, remedies and procedures that derive from that convention are retained in UK law through the provisions of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Those rights that are saved relate to legal proceedings immunity and an income tax privilege for UK-linked staff at the institute. The retention of those rights is appropriate or supports a period of reasonable adjustment for staff. The SI also sets the circumstances after which those rights will no longer apply.

The European University Institute is based in Florence. It is an international centre for postgraduate and post-doctoral studies and research in the social sciences with a European focus. It was established by an international convention in 1972, signed by the UK in 1975. Although the European University Institute is not an EU body, the convention states that accession to the convention is restricted to EU member states. When the UK left the EU, our formal membership also ended.

The UK has been operating under the terms of an interim arrangement with the institute since 2020, while discussions took place to explore the possibilities for future UK participation. That was to ensure that UK staff and students at the institute could continue in their posts and with their studies while we considered options for a future relationship with the institute. That arrangement ends on 31 December 2022.

The UK has held a series of constructive and detailed negotiations with the institute over 18 months, but at this time it has not been possible to conclude an agreement to define future UK engagement. We are now focusing on confirming the status of UK-linked staff and UK-funded students at the institute as soon as possible. The UK will take appropriate measures to allow current students to continue their studies at the institute. We will continue to pay the grants that we committed to for students who started courses already.

The Government value the work of the EUI and the close collaboration that we have shared over the years. Many talented UK students have studied for PhDs at the institute, with financial support from the UK Government. It is an important forum for collaboration on education and research. I want to reassure hon. Members that the UK remains strongly committed to collaborating with our European partners in the field of research. We look forward to reaching an agreed settlement with the institute soon, which will provide for current staff and students. We will then look again at the question of our future relationship.

Under the draft regulations we are considering today, we are taking steps to provide legal certainty by revoking retained EU law relating to the convention. That is either because it no longer has any practical application following the UK leaving the EU and is redundant, or it is no longer appropriate for it to be retained. The SI has no bearing on the UK’s membership of the institute. Its purpose is simply to ensure that no provisions remain in UK law except as appropriate or to provide a period of reasonable adjustment for staff. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

It is good to see you in the Chair, Sir George. Once again, I welcome the new Minister to his post.

Barely a week has passed since the Minister and I sat across from each other in Westminster Hall to debate the contribution of international students to the UK, not just to academia but to our economy. To be fair to the Minister, his words on the value of international students were a very warm and welcome departure from the words of the Home Secretary and her rhetoric on this front. Yet, I cannot help but the notice the irony that, a week on, here we are debating a regulation, albeit procedural, that effectively confirms that talks between the UK Government and the EUI have broken down, thereby denying British students and academics yet another opportunity to benefit from European collaboration, as we heard the Minister say, and co-operation.

The EUI is a postgraduate and post-doctoral research centre that focuses on economics, social sciences, law and history in the European perspective, but it entails looking at our place globally, our relations with other nations and other spheres of influence, understanding those histories and those relationships and how they impact on where we are today. In the context of what is happening to the east of us in Ukraine and Russia’s illegal invasion, and what is happening in the eastern sphere, those relationships and that understanding is incredibly important.

The EUI is based in the Tuscan hills, and is hub of cultural, academic and social exchange, and has been for 900 scholars, including 582 doctoral researchers hailing from EU nation states and associate member state. With the help of state-sponsored scholarships, it has offered the opportunity to eligible students to study at the world-class institute free of charge, with the added potential benefit of additional Erasmus+ funding. It is unique globally as a truly multinational institute of higher education and high-level research. British students who wish to undertake postgraduate study can be expected to pay up to £20,000 at some UK institutions, and for many that is clearly just out of reach. The EUI provided at least one alternative route for some of our brightest minds. Annually, there were between three and 12 UK students at PhD level in the four departments of the EUI. Of course, and perhaps most importantly, many of those UK students were also able to build their network and knowledge base on the international stage at the EUI. That opportunity has now withered on the vine as a result of a bodged Brexit deal.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the collapse of negotiations between the EUI and the UK to secure the UK’s future membership of the institute is that

“in a different climate, there was room for hope.”

Not my words, but those of Professor Dehousse, the EUI president. I really believe that we could have, and should have, succeeded in those negotiations. This unfortunate saga is yet another unnecessary consequence of the embittered breakdown of relations between the UK and the EU. The parallels between that and the UK’s membership of Horizon and associated programmes are plain to see.

On behalf of current UK students and academics at the EUI, as well as of all the UK students who will now not get the chance to experience the EUI, I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to the following questions. First, the UK contributed €5.34 million to the EUI’s budget. Given that we have ceased membership, where has that money been allocated? Will the Minister commit to using that money to maintain the same number of scholarships available at the EUI for UK students in UK institutions? Secondly, if the Government are really committed to their international education strategy and their aim for a global Britain, does the Minister accept that failure to secure EUI associate membership is harmful to both stated aims, the interests of Britain and, if I may be so bold, our common interests with Europe? In that vein, what steps is the Minister taking to secure future associate membership of the EUI? Can he confirm that negotiations remain ongoing, and what assurances can he give the EUI that they will be conducted in a different, more mutually beneficial tone?

Although I note the Minister’s comments, I believe that withdrawal from such an enlightened institution is regressive and highlights a failure to negotiate successfully. The benefits of international collaboration should be obvious to all of us; the harmful effects of withdrawal even more so. It is not necessary for the UK to retreat from the arena of international research and collaboration as a result of Brexit. I am convinced that where there is a will to find a mutually beneficial agreement in the pursuit of knowledge and collaboration, there is a way. I very hope that the Minister would agree with me, certainly on that last point.

I appreciate the comments of the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington. On the international situation, he referred to a debate we had in Westminster Hall a week or so ago. I just remind him that we have met the target early; we have 600,000 overseas students in the UK, and that is worth around £25.9 billion a year—more than 60% of our educational exports. I think we should be proud of that. I do not think that demonstrates any withdrawal from that sector and it shows our commitment to international students.

To be clear, the negotiations have not broken down; they are continuing with the EUI. As I said in my opening remarks, the UK Government will continue to pay the grant to which they have committed for students who have already started courses at the EUI. We will retain specific privileges and immunities for EUI staff affected by the UK’s legal position, because either they are UK nationals or they have substantial ties to the UK, in particular the legal proceedings immunity and the income tax privilege, to provide a reasonable adjustment period where that is considered appropriate. I want to be clear that the UK remains committed to strong research collaboration with our European partners, including the EUI. It remains open to exploring other opportunities for collaboration with the EU in future.

The shadow spokesman rightly talked about our funding. We funded grants equivalent to 17.06% of the £30 million budget, contributions made by member states in 2019. As he said, that worked to around £5.5 million per annum, and we funded grants of £18,099 for up to 20 UK students over the first three years of their courses at EUI, with additional allowances. I cannot say any more on the funding, but as we continue our negotiations, I would be happy to write to the shadow spokesman about that.

I thank the Minister for that information. On transparency, all we are asking for is some visibility as to where he sees that money going. That is in all of our interests as educators or as those keen to be progressing education. We should ringfence that money to ensure that it stays in the education sphere.

As the negotiations continue with the EUI, I am sure that we will be able to provide further details in terms of UK’s contribution to EUI, but I am not able to do that at this point in time.

I thank the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington for his contribution. I know that hon. Members have a keen interest in the UK’s relationship with the EUI. Please let me reassure them that the UK remains committed to strong research collaboration with European partners, and the UK remains open to exploring other opportunities for collaboration with the EUI in future. I think I have set that out quite clearly. I think hon. Members would agree, however, that it is important to have a tidy and coherent statute book following our exit from the EU, so I commend the regulations to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee rose.