On 3rd November 2016 the House of Lords debated a motion from Labour Peer Lord Soley “that this House takes note of the potential impact of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union on funding for universities and scientific research.” The Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, spoke in the debate:
The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, the range of risks faced by the HE sector covers student recruitment, staff recruitment, research funding and course portfolios, as we have already heard. The potential impact—positive from some perspectives, albeit limited and very provisional at this stage, and the range of likely negative impacts—varies between universities.
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.
Baroness Garden of Frognal (LD) [extract]:…I simply note that universities facing Brexit probably should be spared home-made challenges from an intrusive and unhelpful Government. I also note the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth on the dangers of seeking to rank universities’ teaching in gold, silver and bronze. The Girl Guides and the Boy Scouts have some good ideas, but this is possibly not a good one to apply to universities.
Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con) [Minister] [extract]:…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, raised the issue of the teaching excellence framework and the rating system. The TEF has the potential to enhance the reputation of UK higher education. Students will have a better idea of what to expect from their studies compared with anywhere else in the world, while providers with high scores in the teaching excellence framework will be able to market themselves even more effectively.