Bishop of Portsmouth highlights uncertainties for Higher Education of EU withdrawal

Standard

My background covers different sorts of universities: Hertfordshire and Portsmouth, Oxford and Cambridge, and Durham and Manchester. I studied in three, taught economics in two, was a chaplain in another and have been a governor in two. I draw your Lordships’ attention to my entries in the register of interests.

In such very varied universities, the present excruciating uncertainty following the Brexit vote is having a significant impact in a range of areas.

The risks around recruiting future staff are hard accurately to gauge but it must be expected that it will become more difficult to recruit EU staff. Across the sector, 10.7% of academic staff are EU nationals, with a focus on research staff. They are much more likely to be on fixed-term rather than permanent contracts, so there will be an ongoing need for recruitment in what are now very uncertain, and likely to be changed, circumstances. It would be enormously helpful if the Minister and the Government could be more precise about the freedom of movement for all categories of workers that will be available post-Brexit.

A different problem will arise if, as is sometimes rumoured, the UK Government make recruiting all international staff more difficult. This issue is immediate and particularly pressing because, although no changes to EU staff recruitment can, as I understand it, be made until the UK leaves the EU, changes to UK visa rules can be made with immediate effect. Can the Minister say what is intended?

Our universities are attractive for many reasons. The sector has a high world reputation—we might call it a golden reputation—and I fear that the intention of ranking UK universities as meeting gold, silver or bronze standard in the future risks diluting the prized brand in a period when our international reputation is inevitably under scrutiny. I hope that the Minister and the Government can consider ways to enhance the position of the sector rather than use language and terms that might diminish our international reputation.

As I acknowledge the strength of the various financial risks already identified, I draw the House’s attention to the importance to this nation and society of the openness of our hearts and minds to what is new, different and challenging. The world of learning depends not only on accessibility to ideas and thinking but, as we have already heard, on the people of the world meeting each other, learning together, and sharing their exploration and their understanding. It is that which we must ensure we continue. Insularity in our approach, perceived or actual, will relegate us in the perspective of the world and risk not only the financial stability of our outstanding universities but their educational standards too, to the detriment of the nation.

At Portsmouth, where I am presently a governor, of those who teach or research in the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, which is research intensive, one-third are British and two-thirds are non-British, of whom 45% are from the EU. Is it intended that cutting-edge research such as this will be imperilled? Only yesterday, the astronaut Major Tim Peake, who studied flight dynamics and evaluation at the university, visited for a conference of schoolchildren, widening the scope of those children’s thinking. The risks are clear: uncertainty is debilitating. Economically, educationally, culturally and ethically, universities are pivotal.