Sir Vince Cable: The government is ‘self-harming’ by ignoring Britain’s universities in Brexit negotiations

LONDON — Former business secretary Sir Vince Cable said the government is “self-harming” by appearing to ignore Britain’s university sector in Brexit negotiations.

A leaked document earlier this month showed that the government believes the education sector is a “low priority” when it comes to the amount of government support it will need to adjust to life after Brexit.

However, a report by British universities released in December said Brexit poses a “significant risk” to the sector, saying it is “likely to affect our student demographic, our workforce, our costs, as well as research funding.” The report estimated that EU research funding generates 19,000 jobs in the UK and £1.8 billion a year for the economy.

Applications to UK universities from EU students have already fallen by 7% in the wake of last year’s Brexit vote and former Liberal Democrat MP Sir Vince recently told the Times Higher Education supplement last month that he believes universities will be the “main casualties” of Brexit.

Sir Vince, who was business secretary from 2010 to 2015, told Business Insider: “This is a British export. British universities are an export industry and if you stop them exporting that’s totally self-harming.”

He told Business Insider: “First of all, universities have quite a high proportion of their labour force from EU countries, it’s well over 10% I think. Those people are very uncertain about their future. Secondly, the very high-quality research that we have in the UK, a lot of it was funded by EU. That’s now at risk. Thirdly, if European students are subject to the same sort of controls as non-EU students, there will be a big reduction in the number of European students coming here, who are a significant source of revenue.”

Academics have warned MPs that last June’s vote to leave the European Union is already putting off international academics from taking positions in the UK and the sector risks a “cliff edge” exit if Brexit is not managed carefully.

Prime Minister Theresa May has made it clear that controlling immigration is her main priority in Brexit negotiations and is reportedly planning to cut student visa numbers by almost half in a bid to do this.

Sir Vince, who worked with May while she was at the Home Office, said: “I’ve never understood why Theresa May is just so utterly dogmatic about the overseas students issue. She’s got many good qualities. I don’t want to run her down. But she’s just got a complete tramline approach to this problem and is just not getting it.”

Codrington Library, All Souls College, Oxford University
UK universities have seen a 7% fall in applications from EU students since the Brexit vote. Wikipedia / CC 3.0

Last month the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) estimated that a drop of 30,000 EU students coming to the UK could cost the British economy £2 billion a year in lost revenue.

Sir Vince said he does not think the government are aware of how important Britain’s university sector is to the economy or the potential harm that Brexit could do to it, but added: “I think Jo Johnson [Minister for Universities and Science] does. I think he’s an intelligent guy and I think he does understand the problem.”

In the same interview with Business Insider, Sir Vince said he believes the government is “completely unprepared and completely ill-equipped” to strike trade deals once Britain leaves the EU.

Sir Vince, who is now Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics, in 2014 blocked plans to sell-off student loans while in government. Explaining the move, he told BI: “I’m not opposed in principle to the securitisation of government assets, but there were some lingering doubts when I was dealing with it as to whether the government would retrospectively change the terms of the loans. There will be some small print on what the people who hold the assets can do.

“The other thing that did concern me is that when you get money lending at the second or third removed, you can get some very anti-social behaviour, chasing up debtors.”

The government recently resurrected plans to securitize £12 billion of loans made between 2002 and 2012. Sir Vince said he was not familiar enough with the new proposals to comment on whether he would have blocked them had he still been in government.

Sir Vince was speaking to Business Insider in his capacity as a new strategic advisor to the World Trade Board, a private sector group set up by finance software company Misys to promote global trade.

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