This afternoon I spoke in a St David’s Day debate about Welsh affairs and Brexit. I used the opportunity to highlight the issues that the Welsh university sector will be facing after Britain leaves the European Union, including whether the sector will be able to attract the best minds, and if there will be a replacement for vital research funding streams.

As the MP for a constituency containing three universities – Cardiff University, Cardiff Met and the University of South Wales – this is a topic close to my heart and one that stands to affect a large number of my constituents who are either staff or students at the university.

You can watch my speech here, and read the text below.

Jo Stevens MP:

I would like to first congratulate my friend the honourable member for Ynys Môn for opening the debate today. And it’s a pleasure to follow the member for Gower and I am a great fan of Swansea cockles so I was interested in hearing what he had to say.

I represent a university constituency which has three universities in it: Cardiff University, Cardiff Met and the University of South Wales. So I want to focus my remarks today on the importance of the higher education sector to Wales.

People in Wales have long understood the value of good education, from the late nineteenth century when working men pooled their wages to help fund some of the earliest Welsh universities, through to today where our seven universities are thriving like never before. They performed extremely well in the latest research excellence framework audit. Seventy seven percent of submitted research was placed in the top two tiers of world research, and Cardiff University was judged to be the fifth best research university in the whole of the UK.

Welsh universities now stand at the cutting edge of research into renewable energy, new agriculture methods and new health research and in my constituency we have the brand new Cardiff University Brain Research imaging centre which brings together world-leading expertise in brain mapping with the very latest in brain imaging and brain stimulation. The centre, known as CUBRIC, plays a pivotal role in the endeavour across the world to better understand the causes of neurological and psychiatric conditions such as dementia, schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis.

And to identify vital clues for the development of better treatments. The higher education sector in Wales now accounts for almost five percent of our national GVA, it generates £1.38billion itself and it powers £1.41billion in other industries every year. And although our universities are often portrayed as ‘urban’ in Wales, they are in fact based in diverse areas and they benefit the whole of our nation.

Of the nearly 50,000 jobs created by the higher education sector in Wales, over 11,000 are in local government areas that don’t actually have a university based within their boundaries. And this highlights the fact that success in higher education helps deliver success not just for local communities but for every community across Wales.

But we know that success is not inevitable, and it’s taken an incredible amount of work, from teaching and research staff, students, administrators and university managers and leaders, to make our universities what they are. But it has also taken a lot of hard cash. And a major source of that cash has been the European Union, both through research programmes like horizon 2020 and more generally the European Regional Development Funding.

And I’m reminded of that every time I drive past CUBRIC, because without £4.5 million of European funding that Cardiff University had for that building, the land where that centre now stands would’ve remained as wasteland, a home for rats rather than researchers.

And examples such as this are why, during the referendum, the Welsh Conservative leader pledged that Wales would not get a penny less in funding after we left the EU, but the Secretary of State has repeated refused to guarantee a replacement to the current level of EU funding available to Wales, and by extension to Welsh universities. So given the Prime Minister’s quips about Labour checks bouncing, it would be bitterly ironic for Wales if we discovered that the Welsh Conservative leader has been writing cheques that his boss can’t cash. The refusal to offer guarantees to future EU students, the nonchalant attitude to pan-European student programmes like Erasmus, and the general tone struck towards those seen as different, echo far beyond our shores, and Wales is already paying the price.

Applications to Welsh universities from EU students were down by 8.45% on the prior year. Those students put over £130million into our universities and our local economy, and that reduction in applications means that some of the brightest people in the world are not now choosing Wales and this is our loss.

The government could take a simple step now to seek to halt that decline and to reduce the widespread and growing perception that EU students are unwelcome here. They could give a guarantee like they’ve done for 2016-17 and 2017-18 student cohorts from the EU, that EU students starting courses next year will have identical tuition fee status and access to financial support.

Last week I heard from representatives of university medical students, who are really concerned about NHS workforce planning, which has already factored in current medical students, many of whom are from the EU, and who don’t know whether when they finish their degrees, after we’ve left the European Union, whether they will be able to stay and work here.

Our ability to attract and retain the best academic talent is at risk. 17% of Cardiff University’s academic staff are EU nationals, and that is why it is essential that the Prime Minister shows some leadership now and makes a unilateral…

Intervention by Paul Flynn MP:

– Does the Honourable Lady believe that the amendment passed by the House of Lords yesterday would be very useful if it’s supported in here to help the people that she’s mentioned?

Jo Stevens MP:

The honourable member is absolutely right, as I say, 17% of Cardiff University’s academic staff are EU nationals, and universities across Wale and across the UK are very concerned that not only will we lose EU national teaching staff but we will lose UK national teaching staff in our universities who have EU spouses, because they will leave the UK and go and work abroad.

The Welsh higher education sector represents everything that a global Britain should aspire to: A world leader, punching above our weight, and ready to work with friends across Europe and across the world. We need to applaud this success but also recognised that it is not an inevitable state. We have a responsibility, a positive duty to provide the environment in which Welsh higher education doesn’t just survive, but it thrives.

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