The wide role played by our universities cannot be over-estimated. Universities are engines for so much in our economy and society. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, they generate an annual output of £73bn and around £11bn of export earnings for the UK economy. They create jobs, drive innovation, support growth, and are beacons recognised by the rest of the world for their integrity, quality and innovation.
At a regional and local level, their importance is no less noteworthy. The University of Bradford, in my home town, is an important and central part of the city in many different and positive ways.
The university supports local and regional growth, encourages enterprise and business development, attracts investment and talent, and provides and creates employment. Bradford is not unique in that regard. Our universities are dynamic, and they make an invaluable contribution to the UK’s place in the world.
Brexit must not be allowed to undo that intentionally or inadvertently. The Government must protect and enhance the way in which British universities bring about positive impacts on behalf of the UK, not least in science and research.
Collaborative working with the EU in this field makes an enormous contribution to Britain. In its report on the challenges of Brexit, MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities, stresses that the value of cross-country collaboration between academics in different EU countries cannot be overstated.
This collaborative research, and the relationships that stem from it, need to be promoted as part of the negotiations to leave the EU. That is just as important as guaranteeing funding. In 2014-15, UK universities received £836m in research funding from EU sources — 15 per cent of the total value of all research funding that year. MillionPlus says that this often proves more accessible than funding from UK sources.
As many will know, the Alzheimer’s Society offers one example of the importance of research and how a bad Brexit may damage Britain. The society points out that Britain is a global leader in dementia research but worries that this position, particularly in relation to funding, could regress as we exit the EU.
The Alzheimer’s Society and I are urging the Government to prioritise securing continued access to EU funding schemes and programmes for research as they negotiate a new relationship with the EU post-Brexit. That is one example of how EU collaboration and investment can be critical; there are many others.
Collaborations are vital for science. Scientists should be able to work with the best in their field irrespective of their geographical location and institutional affiliation. Researchers collaborate; they overcome all sorts of institutional and financial difficulties by working together and pooling resources.
EU funding has played a part in overcoming the sorts of challenges that researchers face. I am sure that I speak for many universities, and all the organisations who are beneficiaries of the research they do, when I urge the Government to look seriously at how to make up shortfalls in funding for research that arise from Britain’s departure from the EU post-Brexit.
I hope that the Government will commit to making sure that any lost research and innovation funding arising from Brexit is replaced. I also hope that they will reassure our research community and preserve our international reputation by committing to a real-terms increase in science funding.
Safeguarding what we have and reassuring those with a vested interest is only the first step.
The next phase will be to ensure that in the decades to come the way in which Britain works with the world does not lose sight of the vital and specific needs of our universities and the research they carry out. The Government will need not just a long-term plan for leaving the EU but a plan for engaging with the rest of the world on many important and fundamental level.
Judith Cummins is the Labour MP for Bradford South. She spoke in a Parliamentary debate on Brexit – this is an edited version.