- 29 Oct 2020
Colleagues. In 63 days the UK’s new relationship with the EU will begin. A weakened relationship, that Scotland made abundantly clear in the referendum of 2016 we do not want. And for our colleges, universities, researchers and learners this matters greatly.
They have benefited greatly from our membership with the EU that has brought access to funding, talent and ideas.
Our participation in programmes like Horizon 2020 and Erasmus Plus have seen our institutions secure high levels of research funding, and attract large numbers of students to come study here.
I had hoped to come to Parliament to report real and encouraging progress with the post-Brexit arrangements to continue our relationship with the EU, and to outline how Scotland will benefit from successor schemes.
Instead, I have to say that we remain largely in the dark and all of the benefits we have enjoyed for decades remain under threat as we head towards December 31st. There remains little clarity from the UK Government on what they are thinking or what they hope to achieve by then, and the clock is ticking.
To be clear, Brexit is potentially disastrous for our colleges and universities. It will lead to less funding. It will put off prospective researchers and students – exactly the sort of bright minds Scotland needs – from coming here.
I share the views of Paul Nurse, a Nobel Laureate and former President of the Royal Society who commented in July that, “there needs to be a concerted [UK] government effort to change its rhetoric to be more welcoming, to fully embrace the future and think less about the past, and to engage the many young people and scientists who were overwhelmingly against Brexit”.
He has reason to raise the alarm on this. A recent report by the Wellcome Trust sets out that there will soon by an upfront cost of more than 13 thousand pounds for a family of four on a 5-year Global Talent Visa, in contrast to a one thousand pound fee for the same family under the French talent visa.
While the Global Talent Visa is a step in the right direction, aimed at reducing potential barriers in the new visa system for world-class academics, this exorbitant cost shows just how out of touch the UK Government is.
It is no wonder that more and more EU researchers are now choosing to leave, and take their EU research grants with them, or not come in the first place.
These research grants come from programmes such as Horizon 2020, and its successor programme Horizon Europe, which are of vital importance to Scotland and our researchers. They help us foster invaluable partnerships across Europe and the world. Across disciplines and sectors, they provide opportunities for all experience levels, from early career researchers to Nobel Prize winners.
Since Horizon 2020 began in 2014, Scottish organisations have won 711 million euros. Winning a higher proportion of funding relative to population than any other part of the UK. In fact, Scotland produces 12% of the UK’s research with 8% of the UK’s population and 10% of its researchers.
A truly excellent track record. However, this is not just a matter of funding alone.
The Scottish Science Advisory Council report, “Scotland’s Science Landscape” published last year, demonstrated that research collaboration with EU countries brings the greatest academic impact. With six out of ten of Scotland’s top international collaborating countries being in the EU. It is for these reasons that we want Scotland to remain involved with Horizon.
In the immediate term we have asked the UK Government to guarantee equitable funding to Horizon 2020 participants in Scotland, and to guarantee no funding gaps. If the UK becomes a third country, we have urged them to associate as soon as possible, to fully fund continued participation in all parts of Horizon Europe open to third countries, and to plug all funding gaps where alternative schemes may be needed.
In comparison to our clarity on this issue, however, the UK Government’s approach to Horizon Europe has been murky at best.
We had to wait until July this year for a clear public statement of the UK ambition for association. Too often, key information is held back from us, such as the actual costs expected for Horizon participation, or the cost of any alternative. While at the same time not giving sufficient attention to devolved options and devolved possibilities for alternative schemes.
I do welcome what has been good UK Government and UKRI engagement with us on the design of the Discovery Fund that will be a key driver of academic excellence in international collaboration. However the Discovery Fund is just one of three strands of alternatives for research collaboration that may be needed.
We have had minimal engagement by the UK Government recently on the other two. This suggests a haphazard approach at best to information sharing or a selective approach at worst. This is no way to help our institutions plan for the future in these challenging times.
Just as Horizon has been key for our institutions in attracting funding and researchers to come to our shores, Erasmus Plus has done the same for students.
Facilitating the mobility of individuals across Europe, be that for learning, teaching, or working, Erasmus has come to signify to many all this is good about the EU: it brings people together; it allows us to exchange cultures and ideas; it fosters a wider sense of community and belonging between the nations of Europe; and Scotland does exceptionally well from it
We attract proportionally more students from across Europe than any other country in the UK. We send proportionally more students abroad through the scheme than any other country in the UK.
Between 2014 and 2018 our institutions secured over 90 million Euros in Erasmus funding. And just this month, we have learned that the European Commission has confirmed a 55% increase to the programme’s budget, which is now sitting at over 22 billion euros.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that we want to see Scotland remain a member of Erasmus. We have made our position clear to the UK Government time and time again. We have provided them evidence which shows, in no uncertain terms, the economic and social benefits the programme brings to Scotland.
Yet, we have still to receive confirmation that this evidence has been used in the UK Government’s own assessment of the programme.
My letters to Baroness Barran, UK Minister for Civil Society, and John Whittingdale, UK Minister of State for Media and Data, concerning the incredibly important youth and community learning and development aspects of Erasmus remain unanswered. And while the Department for Education have now adopted our position that all mobilities at all levels should be funded fairly, the UK Treasury refuse to accept this.
They tell us that, while we may not remain a part of the EU Programme, the UK will develop its own version: a better version, which stretches out across the globe. In reality what we can expect is a pale imitation of the real thing.
What we are being presented with is a replacement programme that may see Scotland’s funding for mobility cut by over 50%, and support for our colleges, schools and community groups severely reduced and in some cases removed all together. Groups like Royston Youth Action, who I met earlier in the year and who have been undertaking life-changing, transformational work through Erasmus. Additionally, devolution will be ignored.
If the UK Government fails to associate to Erasmus Plus and look to deploy this replacement scheme they will, if they get their way, prevent the Scottish Parliament having any say in how it is ran in Scotland.
UK Ministers have refused to rule out using the Internal Market Bill to foist inferior schemes on Scotland which would be completely unacceptable.
Conclusion and Next Steps
No matter the eventual outcome, however, Brexit will be bad for Scotland. And it remains to be seen at this stage whether those EU Programmes so vitally important to our colleges and universities will be part of any such deal.
It is within this context that the Scottish Government has been working closely with our sectors to prepare as best we can. We are considering, for example, the introduction of a new scholarship scheme to help preserve the bonds between our nearest neighbours and ourselves. We are continuing to speak with our European friends and reiterating that, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, we want to continue to work with our EU partners through research collaboration.
We continue to impress upon the UK Government the urgent need to confirm association to Horizon Europe and Erasmus Plus. And we have guaranteed that those EU nationals who choose to make their home in Scotland by the end of this year and are successful in gaining either settled or pre-settled status will continue to have access to our generous student support package, including the home tuition fee rate.
These actions show our commitment to internationalism and our view that it remains a key strength of higher and further education in Scotland. But despite these efforts it can be easy to give way to despair in the face of such dire looking prospects.
The consequences for Horizon and Erasmus illustrate, Brexit, and even worse, a no-deal or poor-deal Brexit, is an act of self-sabotage that will cause severe injury to some of Scotland’s most important institutions and the life chances of current and future generations, and our economy.
This is the last thing that our colleges, universities and young people need on top of the impact of the current global pandemic. I assure colleagues that in the weeks ahead we will continue to make the case as strongly as we can for Horizon and Erasmus but so far it does seem that too often UK Ministers respond with vagueness or silence.
The devolved administrations have been left in the waiting room outside, whist the UK Treasury, the Department of Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are inside Whitehall offices deciding the fate of the these hugely importance programmes.
As we continue to pursue a no detriment policy for EU programmes in terms of funding and participation, we will use the coming weeks to do all we can to protect Scotland’s interests and to prevent the UK Government inflicting untold damage on our relationship with Europe.
I thank Parliament for the opportunity to provide this update on these important issues today.