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House of Lords Hansard
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Brexit: Higher Education
15 December 2016
Volume 777

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take to ensure that the higher education sector is represented in all of the Brexit negotiations.

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My Lords, the Government have been clear that they want to create an environment in which the UK can continue to be a world leader in research, science and the tertiary education sector more broadly. The Department for Exiting the EU has already engaged with a number of higher education institutions and groups to ensure that their interests are represented in the Brexit negotiations. This engagement will continue over the next few months through a series of round tables, bilaterals and visits across the UK.

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My Lords, I declare my interest as Pro-Chancellor of the University of Bath. Will the Government ensure that one of their negotiating priorities is future access by our universities to EU programmes such as Horizon 2020, which is vital to our research excellence? However, in view of the significant decline in EU undergraduate applications for 2017 entry, my immediate concern is that the Government should make a clear statement as soon as possible on the conditions relating to EU nationals who wish to apply for courses beginning in 2018, including with regard to tuition fees and access to finance. Clearly that is vital to enable—

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Too long. Reading.

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I am sorry; it might be too long but I am going to ask my question anyway. It is vital to ensure effective planning for the next cycle for both students and universities. When will the Government make such a statement? And yes, my Lords, I was reading.

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I am accustomed to getting questions from your Lordships one at a time but the stereophonic effect is a little disconcerting. The noble Baroness raises a very important issue in relation to Horizon 2020. I very much hope that the recent announcement guaranteeing Horizon 2020 funding and the Prime Minister’s announcement that we will be investing an extra £2 billion a year in research and development underline the Government’s commitment to keeping the UK at the cutting edge of science and technology.

I think that, in among the commentary, I detected a question about university access and funding for EU students. The noble Baroness will be aware that to help provide certainty and respond to the sector’s concerns, we confirmed that existing EU students and those starting courses in 2016-17 and 2017-18 will continue to be eligible for student loans and home fee status for the duration of their courses. Applications for 2018-19 do not open until September 2017, and we will ensure that students applying have information in advance of that date.

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Following on from the Minister’s earlier reply, can she say what assurances she has been able to offer in the discussions with universities regarding the uncertain position of EU nationals—staff and students—who form such a vital part of the success of our British universities?

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As the noble Baroness will be aware, we have made it very clear that we value highly the contribution of EU and international researchers and academic staff, and we will always welcome those with the skills, drive and expertise to make our nation better still. We have been clear that as a result of the referendum there has been no change in the rights and status of EU nationals who are already in the UK. I reassure the noble Baroness that this matter will of course be at the forefront of our negotiations, but I cannot pre-empt those negotiations. She will understand that we wish to do everything we can to protect the position of those EU nationals. Equally, in the negotiations we would wish to have recognised the position of our UK nationals, of whom there are 1 million elsewhere in the EU.

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My Lords, once again I make the point that it would generate enormous good will if we could just tell those who are here that their position is not at risk. This would be a good prelude to negotiations and, by leading by example, I believe that we would achieve a very great deal.

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My noble friend makes a point that he has made before. I can simply respond by saying, as my colleagues have done on previous occasions, that these are important issues. I cannot pre-empt the negotiation detail but that will be at the forefront of our discussions.

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Will the noble Baroness confirm that in these negotiations particular emphasis will be laid on the priceless worth of the Erasmus exchange scheme, which is one of the most distinguished projects that the United Kingdom has ever been involved in?

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The noble Lord makes an important point. Erasmus is a very valuable programme and it has enabled more than 200,000 UK students and 20,000 staff to spend time abroad, which has been of great benefit to them as individuals and to the United Kingdom. There is no change for those who are currently participating in or about to start Erasmus+. As the noble Lord will be aware, Erasmus+ offers a range of programmes to countries across Europe and beyond.

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Could the Minister confirm whether the early indications show that the reassurances the Government have given on student applications remaining under the same conditions in the meantime are working? The evidence from universities across the UK is that applications from European students are declining rapidly. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government have a plan B?

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The Government have many plans, and the full detail of these exciting proposals will become evident in due course. I am neither privy to what they are at the moment, nor can I disclose any further information. What I can tell the noble Baroness is that EU students are very important. She will be aware that they make up about 5% of the United Kingdom student population. We are very anxious to give reassurances and to try to ensure in the negotiations that we preserve that important component. However, the universities of the United Kingdom have a far-reaching global influence and that also has to be acknowledged and recognised.

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My Lords, will my noble friend take this opportunity to condemn those who are indulging in scaremongering about Brexit? For example, could she point out that the Erasmus programme has more than 37 countries participating in it and that there are only 27 members of the European Union, apart from us? Is it not time that people started to be constructive and look towards making Britain’s future a successful one?

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As ever, my noble friend makes a very pertinent point—in a characteristically pungent manner. The university sector in the United Kingdom is a world leader in research and academia, and continues to be home to the best universities in the world. That is certainly something that we should trumpet and of which we should be proud. I remind the House that, in giving evidence to the Education Select Committee, Universities UK said that,

“with the right support and investment from Government—both now and in the future—universities can thrive outside the European Union”.

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My Lords, can the Minister name one other sector of the economy which has better growth potential, brings in more foreign earnings, relies more on working with co-workers across Europe and will lose more in terms of research and student fees funding if it is not present at the Brexit negotiations?

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The noble Lord will be aware that a Cabinet committee has been constructed to deal with the Brexit negotiations, and that committee is charged with engaging with all departments. The Minister, my right honourable friend Jo Johnson, is also engaging on this. He has set up a forum with senior representatives of UK research and innovation organisations to discuss opportunities and issues arising from the UK’s exit from the European Union.