Gordon Marsden MP: Brexit's perils for Higher Education are still real

Posted On: 
6th September 2016

Labour's Education spokesman Gordon Marsden writes that the Government's post Brexit uncertainty is threatening community based Universities and FE Colleges which currently receive EU funding.

Credit: 
PA

After June 23rd's decision, Theresa May's Government decided to press ahead with its new HE and Research Bill without pause for thought, despite the fact that Brexit significantly alters the landscape for the most sweeping Bill in Higher Education in 25 years. As Parliament starts looking at the detail of the Bill in committee this week, we are not much the wiser on what progress Ministers have really made since June 23rd on addressing that challenge.

In July’s Second Reading debate on the Bill, I and a number of other MPs highlighted those concerns. I mentioned numerous reports from university researchers facing post Brexit concerns about continued working with their European partners, including worries UK universities might have to leave current or future bids on EU-funded projects. Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor at Sheffield Hallam, said as a result of Brexit that four out of 12 of his research projects were now in jeopardy.

So what is the future for the 15% of our Higher Education workforce currently from other EU countries? Despite the admirable solidarity with them, universities and MPs have shown there are no guarantees or strategy for their future or the skills gap their departure would leave.

With Universities saying more than 60% of the UK's research partners are from other EU countries, warnings that leaving the EU could jeopardise the UK’s world class science reputation, remain potent.

The Government has now promised to underwrite threatened EU structural funds already won, such as Horizon 2020, before the UK leaves the EU. This is important, but it does not go far enough. The Government has urged UK Universities to continue bids for EU funds, while the UK remains a member. But with our scientists already being overlooked for collaboration on research projects what will their chances be? By the time Brexit occurs, the damage will have been done.

This is a view echoed by the devolved administrations who say funding guarantees are inadequate. Scotland’s Finance Secretary Derek Mackay said: “A limited guarantee for some schemes for a few short years leaves Scotland hundreds of millions of pounds short of what we would receive as members of the EU.”

Instead of strengthening our UK HE brand in the uncertain world post-Brexit, the Government has produced a hotchpotch of structures in research and science in its Bill, with unresolved tensions between new structures for England and the devolved nations - on top of these new funding concerns.

It isn’t just our Universities at risk of falling foul of the ramifications of Brexit. Higher Education at Further Education Colleges makes up over 10% of all UK HE courses, providing opportunities for the most disadvantaged students. But FE providers could lose out on tens of millions of pounds in European Funding as a result of Brexit. In 2014-15, colleges received £120 million from European funds such as the European Social Fund. Future funding is now in jeopardy. That includes the £725 million of ESF funding earmarked for England's Local Enterprise Partnerships - a figure I have prised out of the Government.
Ministers claim this funding will be ‘guaranteed’ if the contracts are signed before the Autumn Statement. But when will that Statement be? And with heavy staff cuts in the Government agencies who administer such deals, what guarantees do LEPs have that they will get through before that drawbridge is raised?
Lord Porter, Chairman of the Local Government Association, says local areas need certainty about the future of the £5.3bn in EU regeneration funding they are supposed to receive by 2020. “Money is tied up in thousands of proposals yet to receive government approval...this risks damaging local regeneration plans and stalling flagship infrastructure projects, employment and skills schemes and local growth."

This underlines how Government’s post Brexit dithering now threatens community based Universities and FE Colleges whose jobs, students and contribution to their local economies depend on such initiatives. Not a good advert for the Government's commitment to 'localism'.

The Government urgently needs to say something new and positive to the HE sector. Prime ministers need to consider the national interest and not simply be hidebound by their previous departmental focus. Theresa May should allow ministers to look again at migration rules, and also give international postgraduates some flexibility to contribute economically to the UK. That should be something both Brexiteers and Remainers could agree on, given the great boost to our soft power and influence world-wide generated by those who study here and return to their own countries.

Gordon Marsden is the Shadow Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy & for Education. He is the Labour MP for Blackpool South