UK universities and business should work together to ensure that the post-Brexit immigration regime welcomes “brilliant” foreign researchers, and there should be “honest” national debate about the role of immigration in the economy, according to the CBI president.
Paul Drechsler, who holds one of the most prestigious roles in UK business, stressed the importance of university research to British business and the importance of European Union funding to that research.
He told Times Higher Education that key concerns arising from Brexit were “how to ensure the university sector is able to [continue to] access the levels of funding it has from the EU” and the “need to be open for business” in terms of welcoming talent.
Mr Drechsler added: “To deliver brilliant research and innovation, you need brilliant researchers.”
But he warned: “Because of the immigration concern in the Brexit debate, we’re caught up in a poor-quality conversation that risks us saying ‘you’re not welcome’.”
UK universities currently benefit from around £1.2 billion in EU research funding. But they face uncertainty as to whether, post Brexit, they will continue to be part of the EU’s research programmes, including the highly prestigious European Research Council.
In a speech at a CBI dinner last month, Mr Drechsler called the UK’s universities “towers of talent”. He said that in Brexit talks with the EU, “access to research and innovation funding will be a crucial factor”, as will “helping our universities keep on collaborating with their European partners”.
Mr Drechsler, the chairman of marine and shipping company Bibby Line Group, told THE: “One of the great challenges for the UK is to up its total investment in research and development.”
He said that larger businesses link with universities for their more “adventurous long-term innovation”, while medium-sized and smaller firms see universities as “natural partners” for all their research and development needs.
That means the future research health of universities is crucial for business, he argued.
The UK has thus far had “a bloody good share of total EU funds for research and development”, he said.
On the future immigration regime for researchers post-Brexit, Mr Drechsler said: “The best universities in the world, when you visit them, what’s really exciting is the [international] diversity of the faculty.”
He added that “if we want to maintain the best universities”, the UK should put up “a big sign” welcoming people to the country “if you’re able to contribute to the university”.
But he said there had not yet been an “honest conversation” about immigration, calling for this to happen and for it to focus on the “role of immigration in our country and economy”.
“It is not a hard Brexit or soft Brexit but a smart Brexit” that the country needs, Mr Drechsler said.
He added of the Brexit process: “Universities and businesses need to be very clear what they see as being the goals and priorities and guide the government accordingly.”
In general, he said the goal of Brexit should be “to achieve the best possible trade deal”, which would involve “balancing these issues between trade and people [immigration]”.