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Brexit: UK Universities

Volume 774: debated on Wednesday 20 July 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will ensure that the interests of United Kingdom universities and their students and staff from European Union member states are protected in the current period of uncertainty following the European Union referendum.

My Lords, there will be no immediate change to the rights of UK universities and their students and staff from EU countries. EU students who are currently eligible to receive funding from the Student Loans Company will continue to do so for courses that they are currently enrolled on or about to start this autumn. UK researchers can still apply for Horizon 2020 projects. There is no change to those currently participating in or about to start Erasmus+ exchanges and Marie Curie fellowships.

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for his reply. He will appreciate that uncertainty is immensely unhelpful and unsettling. What have the Government actually done so far to reassure those in the university and academic research sectors, who have benefited from our current relationship with Europe?

I certainly recognise that a degree of anxiety is arising from the universities and research community, which is understandable. Perhaps I can give some reassurance that since the referendum result was received, the Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson, issued an initial statement as early as 29 June and has talked to many academic institutions and stakeholders about their concerns. Both the Government and the Student Loans Company took immediate steps to publish information for students and the wider higher education sector on their websites, which included information on EU nationals and student finance in England, and a focus on EU student and staff status.

My Lords, at a meeting in the House yesterday, we heard from an academic from Southampton University—one of the Russell group—that a number of senior colleagues who are EU nationals had received emails inviting them to return home to their countries. Unless the uncertainty is cleared up soon, is there not a danger that we shall lose a degree of quality in our universities?

That is certainly one of the concerns that has arisen, and it is why the Minister has acted quickly to attempt to reassure the sector. It is essential that we move quickly to reassure all those who are based here, because it is incredibly important for the UK economy that we have skilled staff and that we have students studying here, because they provide a lot of revenue for the UK.

My Lords, the EU makes substantial financial contributions to research in UK universities, amounting to around £1 billion a year. What provision are the Government making to ensure the quality of research in our universities, should that funding be withdrawn?

This is certainly one issue that will be at the top of the agenda when the discussions start on the future of our relationship with the EU. I am unable to go further on that point at the moment but I reassure the noble Baroness that this is a very important matter.

My Lords, in my field of veterinary science, nearly 25% of the academic staff in veterinary schools in the UK are EU nationals, and I do not think that that figure is untypical of many university departments throughout the UK in many different fields. These staff make a crucial contribution to our teaching and research and are essential for the international exchange which maintains our academic excellence. Can the Minister reassure us that, leading up to Brexit and beyond, universities will still be able to enjoy the benefits of the contributions that our overseas colleagues can make?

I can certainly reassure the noble Lord on that point. Indeed, yesterday the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, said that she did not believe that EU citizens currently living in the UK will have their right to stay withdrawn. I reiterate that it is very important that we keep the best people who are working here, because that is very important for the economy.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to the Front Bench again, and I look forward to dealing with him on higher education. Currently, approximately 6% of our entire student body is made up of EU nationals and they account for nearly 12% of all students at master’s level. We are talking about significant numbers and therefore also significant funds. Have the Government made any estimate of the likely reduction in the number of students from the EU coming for courses starting this September? Those courses will of course last for three or four years, when the likely horizon for Brexit is two years.

We have given reassurances about this current year but we cannot give further reassurances beyond those. Again, I reiterate that this matter is at the very top of the agenda. We recognise that, for example, there are 125,000 EU students, who account for 5% of the total number—a figure that has been consistent across the last three years—and it is very important to move quickly to reassure them.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the impact that these exchanges have on the students? Are students and the younger generation in the UK right in thinking that the current Government are simply not concerned about their future development?

The noble Baroness makes a good point. It is very important that we generate skills among young people in this country to encourage them to stay here and develop. This country needs to develop the skills that are required to see us through future innovation and to keep up the excellent standards that we have in our universities.

It is not strictly true for the Minister to say—and I am sure that he is not intending to mislead—that there is no immediate difficulty being felt in universities, when there are so many authentic reports of difficulties already being encountered, especially in the area of science where there is strongly developed, co-operative endeavour with other EU member states. Will the Minister accept that those in this House and elsewhere who have claimed that, in getting subsidy for universities and for science, we have been claiming—

I am asking a question. Will the Minister accept that those who have claimed that we have been only getting our own money back have been misleading public opinion and this House, when there has been a large return vastly in excess of our contributions to the European Union for science research, running at about £400 million a year? Can he give us any undertaking that this level of crucial support for science in our universities will definitely be maintained? If it is not, it will be an act of national sabotage.

The noble Lord has made an interesting, important and, if I may put it that way, blunt point. I agree with him that the UK gets more than 15% of EU science funding—we are the second largest beneficiary—having put 12% into the total EU budget. I can say only that it is at the top of the agenda to maintain it.