We know that Brexit means Brexit, and that it will be red, white and blue, but perhaps the first substantive guidance from the Government came this month in the form of the ‘Brexit’ white paper. Although this document is more a framework than a full picture, some of the areas of uncertainty for higher education (HE) institutions can be clarified by reading it in tandem with the Government’s January 2017 green paper ‘Building our Industrial Strategy’.
The white paper
The white paper builds on the Prime Minister’s 12 principles by which the Government will be guided in negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU. These are:
- providing certainty and clarity;
- taking control of our own laws;
- strengthening the Union;
- protecting our strong historic ties with Ireland and maintaining the Common Travel Area;
- controlling immigration;
- securing rights for EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU;
- protecting workers’ rights;
- ensuring free trade with European markets;
- securing new trade agreements with other countries;
- ensuring the United Kingdom remains the best place for science and innovation;
- cooperating in the fight against crime and terrorism; and
- delivering a smooth, orderly exit from the EU.
The chapters of the white paper follow this numerical structure, with chapters 5 and 10 offering guidance which may be of direct relevance to HE providers.
Chapter 5 emphasises that the Government continues to encourage UK organisations to apply for Commission funding, including through the Horizon 2020 program, and that the Treasury will underwrite such funding if the UK exits the EU part way through the duration of the grant. There is also a commitment that existing EU students and those starting courses up to 2017-18 will continue to be eligible for student loans and home fee status for the duration of their courses. Likewise, postgraduate students from the EU whose courses start in 2017-18 will continue to enjoy research council funding. The commitments to funding are, therefore, time-limited, and the paper is silent as to what will fill the gap once the 2017-18 students finish their courses.
Chapter 10 emphasises the importance of science and innovation, and foregrounds it as a priority for the Government in the post-Brexit era. Although the chapter is pledge-heavy, the only concrete commitments are that the Government will invest an additional £2 billion a year in research and innovation by 2020/21 through the new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to promote new technologies such as robotics, and that they will work with the new High Level Stakeholder Working Group on EU Exit, Universities, Research and Innovation to “ensure the UK builds on its strong global position in research and innovation excellence”.
Therefore although the white paper has been released with great fanfare, one must look to the green paper for detail of how it is proposed science and innovation will be promoted and what will fill the partial void left by EU funding after the 2017-18 cohort have completed their courses
The green paper
The green paper echoes that a key aim is to increase the UK’s prominence in emerging technologies; examples cited specifically are smart and clean energy technologies; robotics and artificial intelligence; satellites and space technologies; leading edge healthcare and medicine; manufacturing processes and materials of the future; biotechnology and synthetic biology quantum technologies, and transformative digital technologies including supercomputing, advanced modelling, and 5G mobile networks. The Government proposes to approach this with investment in both education and industry in tandem.
A new pathway of education is suggested in the paper, starting with more specialist maths schools, through to new institutes of technology which would provide higher level technical education. In the context of the ongoing chatter about new grammar schools, we can all be forgiven for experiencing a touch of déjà vu at the latter. The hope is that this system will encourage more students to apply for relevant HE courses, chiefly through the simplification of the courses on offer, and the introduction of a new UCAS-style application system. It is hoped that this will also provide an increase in STEM PhDs, in turn widening the pool of home-grown talent benefitting from the Government’s pledge to invest an additional £4.7 billion overall by 2020/21 in R&D funding.
The Government hopes that this will boost the number of university spin-outs, science parks, catapults and incubator spaces formed in ‘clusters’ of industry and innovation around key ‘anchor’ businesses or universities. The intention is that such regional clusters will create jobs and regenerate local areas, thus the Department for International Trade will take this aim into account when deciding which local ventures are a priority for funding. The Government has also pledged to support groupings of universities such as the N8, SETsquared and Midlands Innovation groups, although perhaps predictably there is no figure attached to this support at present.
Further detail can be expected in the Spring Budget 2017, but in the meantime the progress of the consultation on the green paper can be followed here.