Just over a week ago MPs were debating a matter that will have a huge impact on our educational infrastructure. It was clear from the debate that the impact on our Universities of our departure from the EU is going to be enormous. For some people this will have a major concern and equally others will not be so concerned. Living in a city that has two Universities which have both acted as a very positive basis for our economic growth it is easy to see that any collapse or damage to the Universities will have detrimental impact on our city which will have a knock on impact on the other towns and villages around the area where many of the employees live and new businesses are based. I work for a company that has one of its most valuable contracts with one University which means that our company would also be impacted if there was a significant shift in the Universities well being.
This debate relates to a Cabinet leak which I referred to a few days ago. However the content goes a long way beyond the leaked proposals to deny EU students comparable access to our Universities that we offer to our own students. The inevitable impact is that our own students would then be denied easy access to EU Universities. As Henry Smith pointed out in his contribution, it is worthwhile extending this option to other nations outside of the EU, however such an arrangement could of course have been adopted in the past and our proposed departure from the EU does not have a bearing on that extension.
The part of the debate that seemed to open up the strange approach was when the Government Minister who was participating, Chris Skidmore was challenged by Ann Coffey regarding his approach to our EU departure in the light of the impact on the University economy. Chris is MP for Kingswood which is East of Bristol and North of Somerset. His own constituency voted by around 57% to leave the EU and only 7.8% of his constituency signed the recent A50 petition, although nearly 8,000 of his constituents is not an insignificant number. However his constituency is surrounded by others where the petition was signed by many more people. These vary from 9.5%, 10.6%, 11.7% in Jacob Rees Moggs constituency and 12.6% in Bristol East. Next to the Bristol East constituency is Bristol West where the largest number of signatories in the country are based at an amazing 27% of the population. It is of course the case that some MPs act as if their constituencies are isolated from the rest of the nation and indeed the rest of the world. Chris does not have a University on his patch and so he is perhaps able to ignore the realities of the EU departure. His response to Ann was:
“The British people voted to leave, and I am determined to ensure that I fulfil my manifesto commitments to my constituency, which also voted to leave, by making sure that that happens. I want to ensure that we can mitigate any circumstances that may arise from leaving the European Union, to ensure that we continue to benefit from the opportunities that we have had as a member as we move forward into the new relationship with our EU partners and also move forward internationally…. I believe that the deal is a good one. It is vital for scientific and education partnerships going forward, which it will protect for the next two years, and will allow for future negotiations, in order to make sure that we can continue to work with our European neighbours.”
The fact is however that Chris Skidmore is a Minister in the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Department with responsibility for Universities. Kingswood is a lovely place to live but many of the residents who live in his constituency will be benefiting from the economic as well as the educational base that Bristol provides. To ignore the wider picture as an MP must surely question if his role as a Minister is credible on both of these themes.
When our population voted to leave the EU we did not know what an impact our departure would have. Without ignoring the vote in 2016 it seems very credible now as we face the idea of voting for MEPs because the Government, let alone Parliament as a whole has been unable to agree on the basis for our departure from the EU. In the light of this it seems entirely reasonable for our nation to also be given the opportunity to vote for a departure or for some alternative that does not ignore the 2016 referendum, but does not treat it as the well prepared and robust set of options that were promised by Vote Leave and their supporters.