New universities minister Chris Skidmore: “UK will continue to be world leader in research post-Brexit”

Minister's first appearance as a committee witness reveals plans to keep UK universities globally relevant

Chris Skidmore, the new universities minister, has promised UK universities that they will remain world leaders in research even in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Skidmore, who was appointed minister of state for universities, science, research and innovation on December 5, was making his first witness appearance since taking the role at a committee chaired by Lord Jay of Ewelme to establish the future of the Erasmus and Horizon student skills and education exchange programmes.

“A post-Brexit vision of the UK is to be able to be a world leader in research and to be able to reach out globally and internationally to research communities,” he said. “But we need to make sure that when it comes to funding streams if we are being affected by a no-deal Brexit that we have contingency measures in place to work with the existing infrastructure but also what new potential infrastructure may need to be created going forwards. I can’t give you any more detail than that, but just to underline that I’m determined to ensure that I’m not going to be the minister who lets this slip.”

Jane Racz, director, Erasmus+ UK National Agency, told the committee that Erasmus led to better job prospects and lower employment.

“It raises standards in education and training through collaboration between UK organisations and international partners,” she said. “It drives innovation and encourages the sharing of best practice and offers new and exciting opportunities to young people.”

Racz continued: ”It provides the opportunity for young people to develop the skills vital to success in the global market such as communication, critical thinking skills and problem solving. It also builds trust between the institutions across Europe.”

However, the future of the programmes remains uncertain, with the European Commission unwilling to enter discussions until the UK’s position on the terms of Brexit is decided. An underwrite guarantee and extension has been agreed to protect individuals in Erasmus and Horizon in the short term, but the committee sought longer-term assurances, particularly in view of Britain’s possible no-deal exit from the European Union.

“I’m fairly assured that the confidence we will give researchers and the scientific community that the continuation of Horizon 2020 and continuation of projects within that framework is safe, but it is that secondary Horizon Europe phase moving into the 2020s, up to 2027 where we would need to look at what might be possible,” Skidmore said.

“A funding commitment has been made. If no deal becomes a reality obviously we will be issuing more information on the guarantee.”

He added: “Until we have the vote next week the EU commission is not actively engaging in any negotiations across any EU Commission related activity until they have certainty over the UK’s position. Having had a conversation bilaterally with [EC research, science and innovation commissioner] Carlos Moedas in regard to the Horizon 2020 programme, we are unable to discuss the details of the programme. What I’ve been able to do is ensure that once we have certainty we will be able to re-engage on those negotiations as soon as possible and he was certainly keen to do so.

“I think there is a willingness to understand that when it comes to the programme this is not just something that is financial. Overwhelmingly, it is also about research connectivity and ensuring that we maintain those relationships going forward because there will be future research programmes that are dependent upon research programmes maintaining a holistic approach to how they work together across main partner countries.”

In his opening comments, the minister expressed a strong preference for Theresa May’s withdrawal proposal. “As a government minister, I’m a passionate supporter of the prime minister’s EU deal and that the programmes – both Erasmus and Horizon – that we are discussing today have that protection in the withdrawal agreement,” he said. “I know we will be discussing the implications of a no deal Brexit, but I would like to underline the absolute importance of trying to achieve a deal.”

The minister summed up by saying: “We lead the world in tertiary education. Three of the best top 10 universities are in the UK and in terms of edtech we are a world leader in that. And I think we have a positive case to be reaching out globally as well as establishing that partnership in Europe.”

A full transcript of the committee meeting will be available on Monday, January 14. The UK is set to leave the European Union on March 29, 2019.