Brexit summit on colleges and universities: Richard Lochhead speech

Speech by Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science at the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Just over six months ago many of you attended the first Brexit Summit on Colleges and Universities at the University of Glasgow.

During the Summit, we heard from representatives from across the sector and beyond - from the students who feel that their opportunities are being constrained and their future stolen from them. To our European colleagues dealing with the personal impact of the Brexit vote – or as Professor Nikolaj Gadegaard described it, the ‘slap in the face’.

That personal impact cannot be underestimated. The continued uncertainty surrounding Brexit is only prolonging the anxiety for many of your colleagues and students.

But now we have European elections which have reaffirmed that Scotland wants to remain part of Europe. The results on Sunday night affirmed the 2016 results that Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. The contrast of the European election results maps in Scotland and England was nothing short of staggering.

That is why the commitment we made in November, to a Scotland that remains open, inclusive and welcoming to all is such an important message. We have continued to make that commitment.

Given the invaluable contribution Europeans have made and continue to make to Scotland this commitment is not just a statement of our ambition, but a reflection of economic necessity. And as the Brexit process lurches from crisis to crisis, it will require us to work hard to honour it.

We need to develop new, innovative and collaborative ways of delivering education and research, while continuing to protect Scotland’s interests.

And we need to mitigate the impact caused by the utter madness of leaving the EU. Our guarantee to extend home fee status to EU students commencing a course of Further or Higher Education in the 2020-2021 academic year is part of this work. Today’s Summit is part of that work.  

We have all put great thought into how we respond to the challenges that Brexit will bring, and today is an opportunity to share ideas on how we rise to these challenges and further explore the working relationships we will need. But it will require honest and robust conversations that we must not shirk away from if we want to honour our commitment – a commitment that must never waver.

Protecting our relationship with Europe will be key to this.

Scottish education and its connection to Europe goes back centuries, when Scots headed to Paris, Cologne, Orleans and Vienna to learn in the great European institutions of the day. Those early exchanges played a role in the establishment of our first universities and helped Scotland participate in the ideas and movements of the time, paving the way for the Renaissance in Scotland. And they allowed us to share the Scottish Enlightenment with the world.

These historic ties have strengthened over the centuries, and maintaining them will be vital to Scotland’s future.   Our excellence across a breadth of disciplines - from data, engineering and robotics; to molecular biology, drug discovery, and genetics - does not exist in a vacuum. An interconnected web of collaborations and connections is at the heart of this excellence. 

Our participation in European research programmes gives our institutions unrivalled access not only to EU funding, but to the collaborative networks, expertise, facilities and data that are fundamental to this excellence. This interconnectedness encourages talented EU citizens to come and work at our institutions.

And most importantly, it gives our researchers the opportunity to build irreplaceable partnerships across Europe.

It is heartbreaking to hear about researchers upping sticks, or reduced numbers of international applications for jobs in our renowned colleges and universities.

Maintaining these relationships will not be easy. We are already seeing how continued uncertainty around the UK’s relationship with the EU may be hampering our ability to promote Scotland as the learning nation we are.

I am hearing troubling evidence of some European institutions refusing to send their students on Erasmus placements to the UK, citing uncertainty as the reason. Institutions from across Europe are taking the unprecedented step of cancelling planned Erasmus exchanges to the UK, advising their students to seek placements in other countries.

It is clear that the UK Government’s planned mitigation measures are not reassuring our European partners that student exchanges with the UK remain attractive and viable. These are troubling signs and is further proof that we must act now.

We cannot wait to see where the Brexit process will land before we start to mitigate the impact of leaving the EU.

We need to utilise those relationships and connections we have built over the decades to explore the potential for maintaining vital bilateral connections.

For example, after hearing that the Grenoble University in France and the University of Freiburg in Germany were thinking about cancelling their Erasmus exchanges with them, the University of Glasgow used their influence with both institutions to ensure that these exchanges continued.  I am sure that in the current climate it was not easy and took significant persuading.

I myself have written to the UK Government asking for clarification on how they plan to deal with this. I will also be writing to institutions across the EU, emphasising Scotland’s commitment to Europe, and reminding our neighbours that their staff and students will always be welcomed here.

My recent trip to Berlin brought home how vital these ties with Europe are to Scotland.

I heard about the tremendous breadth and depth of all the research, education and innovation connections between Scotland and Germany.

I was also struck by the huge amount of goodwill in Germany to continuing and developing the Germany-Scotland relationship in research and education. 

But what struck me the most were the personal stories.

Take for example Dr Michael Rovatsos, who works in data science and artificial intelligence, and leads the Bayes Centre in Edinburgh. Their ambition, alongside other key partners in the Edinburgh data cluster, is to make Scotland ‘the data capital of Europe’ in the next 10 years. 

Michael studied in Germany but came to Scotland due to a long-standing collaboration between his university in Germany and the University of Edinburgh. Scottish and German government agencies supported his time abroad and provided him with opportunities in two of the leading artificial intelligence departments in the world. He was then attracted back to Scotland to further his career here.

And there he was on a mission back to Germany, presenting on behalf of Scotland, highlighting the need to keep all those rich connections alive.

If ever I needed reminding about the sheer stupidity of Brexit, Michael’s example is just one of many.

The threat to Scotland’s future prosperity and the additional challenges to our sector that Brexit brings is another example of this own goal. In November, Professor Tom Devine highlighted how Scotland’s ‘human capital [is] ‎refined and developed by further and higher education’, with both sectors ‘at the heart of our national economy’. I could not agree more.

With employment at a near record high, the unemployment rate at a record low of 3.2 per cent and labour productivity having increased by 3.8 per cent, we are on the right track.

However, it would be naïve to assume that Scotland does not face significant challenges going forward, whether that be economic, environmental, or social.

But a Brexit of any kind brings additional pressures to these challenges.

Scotland already faces challenging demographics in the existing workforce; we have an ageing population and, in 2018, there were 8% fewer 0 to 15 year olds than there were 20 years ago.

Then there are the existing skills gaps - with 16% of businesses reporting at least one skills gap in their current workforce in 2017; and 6% reporting at least one skills shortage vacancy, amounting to 18,000 vacancies.

And these challenges will only be amplified by the loss of EU citizens and a drop of inward migration from the EU.

A drop in inward migration for example, would create weaknesses in sectors vital to the economy, especially where there is a high percentage of EU citizens in the workforce – such as in tourism and hospitality or health and social care.

Then there is the impact of the possible loss of EU students in the tertiary sector as a whole. 

These pressures – of the loss of EU citizens in the workforce and the student population – along with the wider challenges of automation, the decline of medium to low-skilled jobs and new digital technologies, will test colleges and universities ability to re-tool today’s workforce and train tomorrow’s.

Scotland did not vote for Brexit. Our institutions do not want Brexit. But we must ensure that we are prepared for it.

It will require all of our colleges and universities to work collaboratively, to shape a post-Brexit education landscape that is fit-for-purpose. And it cannot be done in silos. 

So my ask of you all is to continue to make the world aware Scotland is Pro-European and Open for Business. 

We must continue this fight for Scotland, for our students, staff and world-leading colleges and universities.

Together we can continue to honour our commitment to a Scotland that is prosperous, a Scotland that remains open, and a Scotland that will always be inclusive and welcoming to all.


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