The Liberal Democrat hope for Britain is of a brighter future that involves a world-class university sector, open to all. We believe the ability of universities to deliver the best teaching and to attract funding for top-quality research depends on Britain being open and outward-looking, attracting and retaining the best staff and students.
Brexit undermines these at every turn. When the University of Cambridge says that “Brexit poses a significant risk to higher education and research activities in the UK”, we can’t afford to ignore it. The reasons for their warning are clear. British universities benefit from European Union students and staff, British research benefits from EU funding, and the whole economy benefits as a result.
Unfortunately, the Conservative government doesn’t seem to be listening. Theresa May has chosen to pursue the hardest and most destructive version of Brexit possible: taking us out of the single market and the customs union, and even threatening to do so without a new trade agreement with the EU. The government is also refusing to guarantee the rights of EU nationals living and working in the UK to remain after Brexit.
The government’s hard Brexit policies and rhetoric risk driving away international students and academics. The number of EU nationals applying to British universities has already fallen by 7 per cent compared with last year, despite the government’s assurance that those starting this year won’t face higher fees after Brexit. Some 53 per cent of foreign academics are now actively looking to leave the UK, and 88 per cent say that Brexit has made them more likely to do so in future.
And what about the EU’s Erasmus programme? It gives 16,000 British students the chance to study abroad every year but the government has made no commitment to maintaining or replacing it after Brexit. Last year, the Liberal Democrats delivered a petition to No 10 and the European Parliament, calling on them to save Erasmus. This petition was signed by more than 10,000 people.
The Liberal Democrats want a brighter future for our young people. We would stay in the single market and guarantee EU nationals’ right to stay. We would protect the Erasmus programme and we would also give the British public the choice on whether the final deal is what they want, with the option to remain in the EU if it is not.
It’s not just Brexit that is threatening higher education. We now have the highest university application rates ever, including from disadvantaged students. But the Conservatives are threatening to undermine opportunity by ending student bursaries, freezing the repayment threshold and raising the level of fees.
The Liberal Democrats would reinstate maintenance grants for the poorest students, ensuring that living costs are not a barrier to disadvantaged young people studying at university. We would ensure that all universities work to widen participation across the sector, prioritising their work with students in schools and colleges, and require every university to be transparent about selection criteria.
Young people voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU and yet they will be hit hardest by the Theresa May and Nigel Farage version of Brexit. They will also be the ones to lose most from May’s wrongheaded obsession with reducing net immigration to below 100,000 a year, made worse by the fact that she has refused to exclude students from that target.
This election is a chance to change all that. It’s your chance to stop a disastrous Brexit deal, by electing Liberal Democrat MPs who will provide a brighter future and an effective opposition to the Conservatives. It’s our chance to build a future where the UK welcomes international talent and leads the world with our research. It’s a chance to make sure that our country remains open, tolerant and united.
Sarah Olney is the education spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats.