Iain Wright: Brexit puts Britain's universities at risk - they need action now
Universities' business models are about to be put at considerable risk. The government must now act decisively to secure their post-Brexit future, writes BIS Committee chair Iain Wright
Higher education is one of the sectors where the UK has a truly enviable global advantage. The vote to leave the EU places much uncertainty into the business models of higher education institutions, but it is the job of all in Parliament, government and the sector to ensure that these strengths are maintained and enhanced, despite the huge risks.
We have much to be proud of with British universities. Thirty four of the country’s universities feature in the world’s top 200 higher education institutions and three of the world’s top ten are based here in the UK. Britain’s universities are renowned throughout the world for their diversity, quality, global perspective and openness to the top talent, regardless of where they come from.
Those strengths are now at some risk due to Britain’s vote on 23 June to leave the European Union. Of course, on one level, nothing has changed – we remain a member of the EU, subject to the same challenges and opportunities now as we did before the vote. We will continue to be a member for the next couple of years.
However, it would be naive, even ludicrous, to suggest that we can carry on as if nothing has changed. Universities’ business models will be challenged in significant ways in the run up.
First, the free movement of people will have an obvious impact upon universities’ abilities to recruit and retain students and staff. The ability to attract the best minds have helped the status and quality of Britain’s universities, but that is now at considerable risk.
There is huge uncertainty that staff and students from EU countries can continue to work and study in our universities, and in the days following the referendum vote the government has not provided that clarity needed to reassure individuals and institutions, all of whom will be worried as to how the future will pan out. The government should send out an early and clear signal that the openness and quality of our higher education sector will not be compromised by any restrictions in the freedom of movement.
On the subject of attracting top talent, and immigration being a central theme of the referendum campaign, the government could use this time as an opportunity to take students out of its net migration targets.
It could also ensure that the post-study visa regime could work to benefit the needs of Britain’s economy. As we saw in our select committee’s report on the government’s Productivity Plan, it seems ludicrous that we train and educate some of the world’s brightest and best in our universities, only to have them removed from this country before they had a chance to use those skills for this country’s benefit, whether it is setting up a business to create jobs or wealth or undertaking a project for a multinational company in the UK.
Because of the UK’s strengths in research, unrivalled across Europe, it is perhaps inevitable that we as a country have done very well out of European research funding. Such funding from the EU generates more than 19,000 jobs across the UK and contributes more than £1bn in additional value added to our country’s economy.
That funding, which helps to maintain the UK’s dominance in higher education research is now at risk. Anecdotally, some pan-European funding bids are excluding any contributions from British universities, because there is a fear that a three or four project time horizon will not have Britain as a member at the end of the project and therefore will put the whole viability of the project at risk.
With this uncertainty, the Government needs to act clearly and decisively, providing as much clarity as possible to ensure that higher education universities do not miss out on research funding.
The government was set to have the Second Reading of the Higher Education and Research Bill more or less immediately after the referendum vote. That has been postponed, given the huge uncertainty arising from the result, including a vacuum of authority in government arising from the prime minister’s resignation.
In the wake of significant disruption to the higher education sector model, now is perhaps a good opportunity to pause and reflect on whether the proposals contained in the Bill address the post-Brexit challenges Britain’s universities will face.
We on the BIS select committee want to play our role in scrutinising government actions and amplifying the concerns of universities and students. We will be embarking on a review of Higher Education and Research in the light of the referendum to ensure that a key asset for the UK, a sector in which we truly lead the world, can be protected and go from strength to strength.
Iain Wright is chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and Labour MP for Hartlepool