Education Select Committee Brexit hearing session at UCL
By Melissa Bradshaw, on 9 February 2017
On 25 January, the Education Select Committee held the second Oral Evidence Session of its inquiry on the effect of Brexit on higher education (HE) at UCL.
The committee heard evidence from UCL President & Provost Professor Michael Arthur, NUS Vice-President (Higher Education) Sorana Vieru and representatives of University and College Union, Erasmus Student Network UK, Universities UK, the British Council and London Economics.
There was a strong consensus on the potentially damaging effects of Brexit on HE, and an urgent call for the government to do more to address them.
The hearing took place just over a week after Theresa May’s historic speech on the UK’s strategy for exiting the European Union, and evidence was heard in two panels.
The Chair of the Education Committee, Neil Carmichael MP, began each session by asking the panellists for their reaction to the Prime Minister’s speech.
Every one of the panellists welcomed the tone of the speech and its emphasis on a “global Britain”, but called for immediate action and more specific detail – particularly in regard to the rights of EU citizens to remain in the UK.
Referring to the Prime Minister’s expressed wish to guarantee the rights of EU citizens, Professor Arthur said: “I’d like to challenge the Prime Minister to go one step further and take the initiative to make the guarantee and challenge the rest of the EU to follow”, arguing that this would give Britain the moral high-ground and provide the negotiations a foundation of good will.
The committee heard evidence of the significant contribution of the higher education sector to the British economy, including the contributions EU staff and students make to the wider economy when they are residing here.
Dr Gavan Conlon (London Economics) also argued that, with education the UK’s fifth largest services export, the HE sector can generate revenue that could contribute to the government’s Industrial Strategy.
The panellists spoke of the positive contributions that EU staff and students make in terms of diversity and ‘soft power’, contributing to Britain’s prestigious academic profile and giving their British peers invaluable experience in international engagement, leadership and collective problem solving. “For a global Britain we need global graduates”, said Rosie Birchard (Erasmus Student Network UK).
The committee also heard evidence that currently UK HE “punches well above its weight” globally – thanks, in part, to our membership of the EU. Jo Beall (British Council) pointed to statistics showing that the UK leads the world in research quality (by field-weighted citation impact) and 1 in 10 world leaders were educated here.
Professor Arthur told the committee that the European Research Council (ERC) is one of the largest research funding bodies in the world and the most effective at cutting through international borders.
The committee heard that if the UK wants to set up schemes comparable in scope and scale to Horizon 2020 and Erasmus, then the UK will not only need to fund, but also administer those complex programmes.
Due to all of the above, there was great concern among the panellists as to how the current uncertainty will affect EU staff and students, the HE sector as a whole and Britain’s economy and global reputation.
The committee heard evidence that the number of university applications from the EU has fallen since the referendum result, and that UK research staff are being asked by EU colleagues to withdraw from joint European Research Council funding applications.
As well as asking for swift guarantees of rights to remain, the panellists also asked for guarantees for future students for the duration of their studies and argued that we should retain access to ERC funding at all costs.
Several of the panellists remarked that the tone of the Prime Minister’s speech was inconsistent with other messages that are coming across from the government, particularly the Home Office, and that EU staff and students feel like they are being used as ‘bargaining chips’ in negotiations.
There was agreement that the sector would welcome a streamlined, proportionate immigration system, but that international students should be left out of the Home Office’s net migration targets.
Professor Arthur emphasised the positive contribution of EU students and staff to UCL, and described a will in the HE sector, both in the UK and in EU countries, to reach out to each other in the wake of the referendum result.
For example, staff at UCL are making more (not fewer) applications for ERC funding and Professor Arthur has reached out to colleagues overseas who have responded positively.
Neil Carmichael also acknowledged that the concerns of the HE sector had not been heard in the debates about immigration before the EU referendum.
Noting that the tone of the session was generally pessimistic, he asked if the panellists could envisage any positive outcomes.
One that emerged was a potential for Brexit to lead to a renewed commitment by universities to communities at home – reaching out more to those who feel they have been left behind by globalisation.
Watch the hearing: