September 23, 2016, by Liz Cass
Brexit and Higher Education…….Again
Earlier this year the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee conducted an inquiry into the potential impact of Brexit on science and higher education. Its report was published before the referendum. Given the outcome, the Committee decided to conduct a follow up investigation.
Last week I was invited to appear as a witness in a public session, before the Committee.
Members were interested in: threats and opportunities; immediate and potential longer term effects; and how Government should respond, both in the short term, and through the negotiations once Article 50 is triggered.
There is still significant uncertainty. For me, there are three high risk areas, and two of lesser risk.
First there is access to talent, be this high quality students or high quality staff from other EU Member States. We have more than 2,000 students and 750 staff who are valued members of our diverse community.
Government has helped reduce uncertainty in the short run in respect of student recruitment, by committing to access to public loans for 2016 entrants. We now need to see the same commitment made for 2017 applicants. And we are now pressing Government for an early statement on the employment and residence rights of our EU staff and their families, to reduce uncertainty for them.
A second area of risk is collaboration, the lifeblood of academic enquiry. Schemes like Horizon 2020, European Research Council programmes, and the Joint Technology Initiative all promote cross border collaboration between researchers, and with business. Collaborative instincts are in our DNA, so eventual exit will not bring this to a grinding halt. However we will have to work hard to ensure our networks and partnerships are nurtured and sustained, across Europe and beyond.
Which brings me to the third area of risk, funding. Higher education draws down between £800 million and £900 million each year from EU schemes. Some or all of that must be at risk. It is easy to rush to the conclusion that Government must just replace it. But it is not that simple. We have to make a robust case for further investment. I believe we can make a compelling case, on which, more below.
There are two other risks which are more manageable. The first is student mobility and the key role Erasmus+ plays in this – we had 500 of our students benefit from it last Semester. It is a great scheme which adds real value to the student experience. Whatever the terms of exit, continued participation in Erasmus seems to me likely, not least because of the attractiveness of UK Universities as a destination.
The second is access to capital through the European Investment Bank (EIB) which a number of UK Universities have already accessed. The EIB is not really part of the broader EU machinery. Besides which, capital markets are deep and any University with a good credit rating will have little difficulty accessing funds.
I see two major opportunities. The first is to rethink, redefine and rearticulate our relationships with other European partners. After all, we may be leaving the EU, but we are not leaving Europe; we are still geographically, culturally, economically part of that continent.
Under the leadership of Professor Karen Cox, our Deputy Vice-Chancellor, and Associate PVC Professor Peter Stockwell, we are reviewing our European strategy, with a focus on key strategic partnerships, to underpin staff and student mobility, collaborative research and knowledge exchange.
The second opportunity relates to perhaps the greatest challenge our new Government faces, and one given extra urgency as we redefine our place in the world economy: low productivity growth.
Productivity – how effectively we use our assets – is key to economic growth. In turn economic growth is key to generating resources to invest in health, education, care of the elderly, mitigating climate change and so on. The UK is a low productivity economy, for a complex of reasons. One is underinvestment in research and development, where we commit 1.7% of our national income each year, against an OECD (rich countries basically) average of 2.4%. That is a huge difference which compounds over time.
The new Government is developing an Industrial Strategy to address this. It is inconceivable that Government can deliver on this without the energy, expertise and engagement of our Universities in general, and our research intensive universities in particular.
We are a key part of the solution and we have to invest the time and energy required to ensure Government understands that. Taken together with the broader public good dimensions of our activities it makes for a compelling case for further investment.
As our Vice-Chancellor, and as Chair of the Russell Group I will be making that case, alongside arguing for a post Brexit settlement which recognises the importance of a higher education sector to our broader economic vitality and social wellbeing.
Finally, let me say how impressed I am with the calm and assured manner in which our community has dealt with the inevitable uncertainty created by the referendum outcome. Not only does that mean a sustained focus on what we want for our University in the longer term, it also makes it easier to concentrate efforts at the national level on the right issues.