For the politicians and the pundits there has been a lot of talk about the UK General Election on 8 June being about two things – Brexit and leadership. With a month to go, we will have to wait and see how the inevitable curveballs change the course of discussions on the doorstep and alter voting intentions.
But whoever forms the next UK Government will need to ensure that the UK continues to be an outward-looking and internationally-minded country. Without it the UK risks eroding its soft power and its reputation as a global centre of research and scientific excellence, as well as its vital role in tackling global challenges that affect us all, at home and abroad. The following sets out five ways these risks can be avoided.
1. Maintain the UK’s position as a global development leader
DFID and UKAid spending, and the global partnerships and international cooperation that they enable, help underpin the UK’s ‘soft power’. Theresa May’s pledge to retain the 0.7% commitment in the Conservative manifesto is welcome, as are other parties’ signalled pledges to keep the commitment. UKAid spending has made and can continue to make a positive difference in tackling the unprecedented and interconnected challenges that the world currently faces – poverty, inequalities, environmental degradation and climate change, mass migration, pandemic diseases, instability and conflict – and in building resilience to crisis.
But how this 0.7% is spent matters. The UK should continue to have an independent Department of International Development, served by a Secretary of State, at the heart of its international strategy. A focus on improving the lives of the poorest and most marginalised needs to be maintained. DFID is a global standard bearer for development innovation, practice, transparency and research, recognised around the world for its thought leadership, as well its commitment to transparency and evidence-based policy making. DFID’s focus and best practices in these areas stand out in relation to other Government departments’ spending of UKAid.
2. Fully engage with the Sustainable Development Goals
Still only less than two years on from the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals, UK politicians must not lose sight of the country’s commitment to meeting the universal global goals by 2030. The 17 goals should be front of mind as political parties update their policies and present their manifestos.
The UK has agreed to meet the universal Goals and ensure that no one is left behind both at home and abroad. For the UK to meet the SDG goals domestically and to keep up with other nations already reporting on their SDG progress, it needs to meet targets, for example around climate change and consumption, violence against women and child poverty. It should take a cross-government approach, ideally co-ordinated by the Cabinet Office. The Goals cannot simply be viewed as an issue for DFID to engage with developing countries around the world – as important as that is.
3. Recognise the importance of UK research in tackling global challenges
The high quality of research produced by UK universities, research institutions, think tanks and industries is respected the world over. To maintain this reputation and the world class evidence and knowledge-base that informs policy nationally and internationally requires sustained levels of research funding. Research funding also needs to foster the interdisciplinary approach that brings together the natural sciences with the social sciences and humanities, and which has proved itself so essential to tackling challenges and crises such as the Ebola outbreak or the conflict and famine in Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia that are global in their impact.
The new UK Aid-funded research funds such as the Global Challenges Research Fund and Ross Fund offer particular opportunities for this type of innovative, policy-linked, engaged research. However a new UK government must work with the UK Research Councils to ensure these funds are used in ways that are open and transparent; build genuine interdisciplinarity; encourage involvement from researchers in charities, think tanks and private enterprises as well universities and more traditional research institutions, and facilitate strong partnerships and collaboration with institutions in other parts of the world.
4. Support higher education institutions to remain internationally networked
Brexit presents a considerable risk regarding staff retention and recruitment. UK universities and research institutions continually look to attract the most talented individuals to contribute and advance efforts to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges. The UK’s scientific reputation has been built and is sustained by its international networks, across Europe and beyond. We welcome the Education Committee report and echo the call from Universities UK for support from UK politicians that allows higher education institutions to continue to be global in their outlook, internationally networked and an attractive destination for talented people from across Europe.
A new UK Government should seek to reassure teaching staff from the EU already working in the UK, that they and their families have the right to remain and will see no immediate change to their migrant status or any change once the UK officially leaves the European Union. Without it EU national staff with concerns for their future will look for teaching jobs at education institutions in EU countries that offer them, and their families, more stability and security for their futures. That could mean losing the best and brightest colleagues, and will make UK academic institutions less attractive to prospective researchers in the future, shrinking the talent pool even further.
5. Remain a preferred destination for international students
As a country I hope we remain welcoming to the brightest minds from around the world looking to further their education in the UK. International students bring a wealth of attributes that benefit the institutions they study at and the towns and cities they live in.
It is important that international students are exempt from Government immigration targets. They should also be given a sufficient period of time to stay within the UK once their studies have officially ended, to find employment. It is firmly in the national interest for the UK to retain the best and brightest minds and a new Government should welcome, not discourage, the best candidates from around the EU and beyond to come to the UK to study and to remain here to work.
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