Oral Question: EU Exit - Science and Research

- Monday, 19th December 2016

 

Science

Peter Lilley: Will my hon. Friend tell us how much it costs to fund the loans to which EU students are entitled—unlike non-EU students, who pay the full fee and help to subsidise the rest of us—given that only 16% are repaying their loans at present? Should that cost not be taken into account when we talk about the costs and benefits of university education in this country?

 

Jo Johnson: Of course, we weigh up the costs of enabling EU students to access our loan book—a right that they have for as long as we are a member state of the European Union—and additional costs after the moment of Brexit will be taken into account as we put in place arrangements for EU students for the longer term. For the time being, while we are still members of the European Union, they have a right to come here and access higher education, as home fee students do, and to access our student loan book.

 

...later

 

Peter Lilley: It is a pleasure to follow Carol Monaghan, with whom I agree on some aspects, in particular the importance of giving assurances to EU nationals in this country, whether scientists or not, that they can stay.

 

What the Minister and the shadow Minister have said about our universities is, if anything, an understatement. Our universities are every bit as good as has been said, and more. I would argue that they are too modest. They underestimate how attractive they are and will be as collaborators to universities not merely in the EU but throughout the world. They underestimate their ability to persuade their own Government of the importance of funding research, given that they have been successful in persuading EU institutions to fund that research. Given their success in attracting students from outside the EU, our universities also underestimate how successful they will be at continuing to attract students from within the EU once we are no longer a member. The universities have been too modest and too afraid of change. They should look forward positively to the opportunities that will open up when we are no longer in the EU.

 

Three issues have been raised. The first is money. The claim is that 10% of publicly funded UK research and development comes from the EU. That is a grossly misleading figure. During the referendum campaign there was much debate about the use of gross figures for our contribution to the EU rather than net ones. For instance, the gross figure of £350 million a week on the side of the leave bus was criticised. I always used the net figure, and we now know from the Office for Budget Responsibility that the net amount we will get back when we are no longer members of the EU will be £250 million a week. But anyone who criticised the £350 million figure should be equally critical of those who quote the gross receipts from the EU without netting off our contributions to it—Chi Onwurah mentioned those contributions. With the Horizon programme, we should not be talking about the gross figure of £8.8 billion but the net figure of £3.4 billion over the period 2007 to 2013, which was of the order of half a billion a year. I will come back to that quite significant figure.

 

Overall, we are net contributors to the EU to the tune of something exceeding £13 billion a year—again, that is from the OBR figures. It should therefore not be too difficult for our universities to argue for the continuation of the money they currently receive from the EU directly from the Treasury, instead of indirectly via the EU, because the Treasury will be £13 billion better off after meeting all the commitments currently funded from EU funds.

 

I come now to collaboration. It is obviously important that we continue to provide opportunities for UK researchers to collaborate with high-calibre researchers not just in the EU but across the world. Our universities and researchers are of such high calibre that they will be in demand as partners and should be given opportunities to work with partners from across the world.

 

If there are barriers to collaboration with researchers in north America, Asia, Australasia and Latin America, I would like to know about them. I constantly hear of and meet researchers from those countries in the UK. If we look out the figures, it turns out that alongside the 32,000 EU citizens working as academics in the UK we have 21,000 from non-EU countries. There does not seem to be too much difficulty in getting researchers and academics from outside the EU. If there are such problems, why have I never been lobbied by the universities to overcome the problems of bringing in citizens from non-EU countries? Do they not like Americans, Latin Americans and Asians? Do they prefer Europeans? Should we not be seeking opportunities worldwide, and not narrowly in the EU?

 

Carol Monaghan: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

 

Peter Lilley: I am afraid it has been hinted that I should make progress rather than take interventions.

 

If there are such difficulties, let us overcome them and make sure they do not apply to EU academics in future.

 

On student numbers, Universities UK talks about increased barriers to recruiting EU students. I understand there are some 115,000 EU students in the UK. They are entitled to loans from the British taxpayer, and to the right to stay and work after they cease studying. By contrast, our universities are spectacularly more successful in recruiting students from outside the EU, even though those students pay the full cost of their education and effectively help to subsidise all the other students, British and European, at university. Their rights to remain and work in the UK are more restricted. When we introduced full fees for foreign university students, the universities claimed that that would make it impossible for them to recruit from abroad. Happily, they were wrong—spectacularly wrong. I have no doubt that they will be equally wrong about their ability to continue to recruit EU students once we are no longer a member of the EU. The EU countries are closer and richer than many of the countries from which we recruit students who pay full fees.

 

When assessing the costs and benefits, we ought to take into account the cost to this country at present of giving loans to EU students, which are, inevitably, much more difficult to get back when they have left. Indeed, the official figures show that only 16% of EU students are currently repaying the loans they have received from the British taxpayer. [Interruption.] I do not know what the figures are, but I will venture some so that people can knock them down and come back with better ones. Supposing that 60% of the students—[Interruption.] Would Tim Farron like to intervene if he has a funny point to make? [Interruption.] No, we do not have any facts or figures; I am trying to elicit them. There are 115,000 students. I do not know how many of them have loans. Let us say that 60% take out loans. If only 16% repay them, that means it would cost the British taxpayer over £500 million a year to subsidise EU students. I hope that the Minister or Opposition Members can tell us the sum is less than that, but perhaps they are not interested. Perhaps they like dishing out British taxpayers' money without calculating how much is at stake and for whom.

 

Universities are also rightly worried about whether immigration controls will impinge on our ability to recruit students from the EU. They have reiterated their demand that student numbers be excluded from the immigration figures. That is a somewhat disingenuous request—it is not what they really want. If students return to their home country after they have studied here, their net contribution to the net immigration figure is zero. What universities mean, therefore, is not that they want the figures excluded, but that the limitations on students' right to remain be lifted. They want to, as it were, sell university places by offering the added benefit of being able to get around our immigration controls. They want that in the present for those coming from outside the EU, and they want to maintain it in future for those coming from the EU when we are no longer a member.

 

That is not the right way to approach the issue. We should, of course, have immigration rules that allow us to recruit students from abroad but ensure that they return later, and that allow us to recruit academics from abroad, as we do at present, without creating added difficulties. If we have sensible and affordable policies to continue our funding and to recruit from abroad, which we ought to be able to do, and we do not impose any new restrictions on recruiting academics, the opportunities for British universities will be far greater than they imagine. I urge them to put their excessive modesty behind them, set aside their fear of change and embrace the opportunities that Brexit will give them.

 

 

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