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Brexit: Research Funding

Volume 796: debated on Monday 11 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the case for domestic replacement funding to be made available should the United Kingdom’s access to European Research Council and Erasmus+ funds cease in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

My Lords, if the UK secures a deal with the EU, we will continue to have access to Erasmus+ and the European Research Council. This is of benefit to both. Without a deal, the Government’s guarantee will cover the payment of awards to UK beneficiaries for all successful Erasmus+ and ERC bids until 2020 for the lifetime of the projects. Our continued involvement in these programmes relies on our reaching agreement with the EU.

My Lords, Erasmus+ is the most important programme for student mobility in the United Kingdom, particularly for underrepresented groups. We are just two weeks away from a potential no-deal Brexit and the Chancellor has still not confirmed that he will redeploy money that we would have routed through Brussels to fund opportunities for study abroad. Typically, 19,000 students would be expected to study abroad under Erasmus in 2019. Just as worrying is the fact that the UK research system will effectively lose something like £1.3 billion over the next 18 months if there is no national alternative to replacing ERC funding. That would be a total catastrophe for research funding in the UK. Can the Minister therefore confirm that the Treasury will redeploy money that would have gone through the Commission and use it to create UK alternative mechanisms for these schemes? If not, will he undertake to write to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, urging him to make this commitment as a matter of urgency?

I will try to give some reassurance. In all scenarios, the UK will remain fully open to scientists, researchers and students from across the EU and beyond. The Government have prioritised investment in research talent in 2017-18 and 2018-19 as part of the wider government investment in R&D, and have committed to backing UK researchers and innovators by supporting measures in collaborative research, including in small businesses. We are seeking independent advice on this matter from Sir Adrian Smith. We are also considering developing a domestic alternative to Erasmus+.

My Lords, the number of applications for European language degree courses fell by almost a quarter between 2012 and 2017. This has clear consequences on the ability of the UK’s workforce to trade, work and network internationally. What are the Government doing to encourage more people to study modern languages? Can the Minister give the reassurances asked for by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick—that the year abroad, which is often a compulsory part of a modern languages degree, will be fully funded?

Beyond the guarantees we have given, I can say that there has been a lot of work from the Government to inform and communicate. In January we published a new technical notice providing detailed guidance to organisations and participants, which is further supported by a set of frequently asked questions. We are planning webinars and conference calls for stakeholder groups and beneficiaries in the HE sector, for schools and for further education, because it is very important that students in the UK continue to have those opportunities to travel abroad for experiences.

We have given certain guarantees on Erasmus+, which I have mentioned before, and there are ongoing discussions on what alternatives to it might take shape. The research side will very much depend on discussions with the EU, but Sir Adrian Smith is undertaking the independent review that I have already mentioned.

My Lords, with respect to the noble Viscount, he has not answered the question from my noble friend Lady Warwick. Will he undertake to discuss this matter with the Treasury and, having done so, write to her and put a copy in the Library?

I can certainly alert the Chancellor to the Question that has been raised, and I am sure that he may wish to read a copy of Hansard. Beyond that, I am not prepared to give any guarantees.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that learning other languages doubles people’s chances of getting jobs?

Of course it depends on which jobs they are seeking, but yes, I certainly fully endorse learning languages, and I am sure that all educationalists agree.

My Lords, despite several opportunities, the Minister has failed to say what will happen after 2020 when the Government’s guarantees run out. He will be aware that last month the EU Committee of your Lordships’ House published a report on the Erasmus and Horizon programmes, in which it noted that,

“it would take many years to emulate the tried and tested mechanism for international research collaboration provided by the EU framework programmes, the established research partnerships they support, and the EU’s joint infrastructure capabilities”.

I hope the Minister has taken note of that. With fewer than 20 days left until this country is meant to depart the European Union, can he give any kind of certainty to EU students and researchers about their futures after 2020?

I have given the guarantees I can to the extent that I can. However, the Government are absolutely clear that ensuring that the UK is at the forefront of science and technological innovation will be at the core of next week’s Spring Statement. The Chancellor will maintain the country’s reputation as a pioneering and world-leading nation as it leaves the EU by investing £200 million in cutting-edge genetic research in Cambridge, state-of-the-art lasers in Oxfordshire, and a supercomputer in Edinburgh. Much action is going on in the UK, notwithstanding what might happen with EU exit.

My Lords, I declare my interest as the chancellor of the University of St Andrews, of which the noble Viscount is a distinguished graduate. Does he understand the extent of anxiety and apprehension in St Andrews University and other universities in the United Kingdom about the failure of the Government to give guarantees about anything after 2020? It drives at the very heart of the research on which the reputation of many of our universities in the United Kingdom is firmly based.

First, I can understand the anxieties that people at all universities will feel, whether they are students or staff. However, as the noble Lord will know, it is the Government’s priority to secure a deal with the EU—that is what we want—and we have given certain guarantees up to 2020.