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Richard Lochhead: first year back on frontbench ‘has been dominated by Brexit’

Image credit: Anna Moffat

Richard Lochhead: first year back on frontbench ‘has been dominated by Brexit’

In Richard Lochhead’s first 12 months back on the frontbench, he’s had to make Scotland’s case to a dizzying array of UK ministers.

Since he was appointed Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science in September 2018, he has had four UK Government counterparts.

From 2016 to 2018, the Prime Minister’s brother, Jo Johnson, served as Minister of Universities, Science, Research and Innovation. East Surrey MP Sam Gyimah took over from Johnson in 2018, but then Gyimah resigned over Theresa May’s Brexit deal months after being appointed.

Kingswood MP Chris Skidmore was up next, and he held onto the portfolio until mid-2019, but once Boris Johnson became PM. his brother Jo was handed it back. Jo Johnson barely lasted six weeks before quitting government and Skidmore was brought back in. As this story goes to press, Skidmore is the present incumbent, but with a general election only weeks away there may be more change.

“My first year in this post, it has to be said, has been dominated by Brexit,” Lochhead tells Holyrood. “There’s been four changes and three different ministers, so I’m doing my best to convey to them the situation facing Scotland.”

Scotland stands to lose European academics, students, researchers and research funding on a disproportionate level compared to the rest of the UK if Brexit happens.

As Lochhead puts it: “It has been one of my biggest challenges, trying to convey to the general public that, of all the sectors that would be damaged by Brexit, our higher education and science sectors are up there as the sectors that would be hit really badly.

“You’re constantly trying to convey the distinctive nature of Scottish further and higher education and science to the UK Government. But, because of the dysfunctional way in which the UK Government works these days, you are speaking to ministers who nod in agreement and then explain, unfortunately, the decision’s above their pay grade.

“They’re doing lobbying to the Home Office to do with the EU immigration policy or to Downing Street to do with the wider Brexit policy, so, I suspect that a lot of the ministers I’m dealing with are tearing their hair out as well.”

Holyrood meets Lochhead inside his Scottish Parliament office on a busy Thursday morning before First Minister’s Questions. An impressive window behind his desk overlooks Observatory House, the Nelson Monument and National Monument of Scotland (or ‘Edinburgh’s Disgrace’).

“I look out the window and see the centre of the Enlightenment,” Lochhead says, admiring the view.

The Moray MSP is an avid history buff, and on his four-hour train journeys into the Scottish Parliament from home, he reads. At the moment, Lochhead “can’t put down” Team of Rivals, about Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet.

He says he now opts to take the train “90 per cent of the time”. “Since I came back into the government, I have virtually stopped using the ministerial cars.”

Asked why that is, he explains that he did not enjoy “the long journeys in the backseat of a car, after doing that for nine years”.

Lochhead served as Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment from 2007 to 2016. He was one of the Scottish Government’s longest-serving cabinet members when he resigned from the role three years ago, citing that he needed to focus on his family, after his wife, Fiona, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

He lives in Elgin with his wife and sons, Angus, 16, and Fraser, 11, and says Fiona is in now good health, pointing out that she recently starred in an episode of BBC Scotland’s Landward to discuss her family history, and how her ancestors once lived in some caves off Lossiemouth.

Lochhead admits he “wasn’t into maths or science in a big way” when he was in school.

“I look at my own children now and I find myself encouraging them to take more of an interest in science than I perhaps did at school,” he says. “As a parent, I also know you can’t clearly dictate to your children what they should take an interest in or what they should do for a living or where they should study, but I’m super excited that my youngest child is right into science and says he wants to be a scientist when he leaves school.”

Last year, Lochhead was brought back onto the frontbench and handed his current portfolio after first choice, Aberdeenshire East MSP Gillian Martin, had further education, higher education and science revoked following the resurfacing of some controversial old blog posts.

He describes the transition from cabinet secretary to minister as an overall positive experience.

I’ve relished the past year back in government.

“Clearly, it was a pleasant surprise as well as a privilege to be invited back into government,” he says.

“You work hard as a minister, I don’t have to attend cabinet meetings – much – and of course, I’ve got a boss in the Deputy First Minister John Swinney and I think we’re a good team. But clearly, being in cabinet is different to being a minister.

“I know from my nine years how demanding the role of being a cabinet secretary is. I have to say there are parts that I miss of being a cabinet secretary and clearly my boss has a lot of influence over our budget decisions.”

Is that one of the things he misses? Lochhead laughs.

“I can see being in cabinet right now is a massive challenge for my colleagues. As a minister, I am a slight distance from some of those challenges, which enables me to focus on my own responsibilities,” he says. “And this portfolio had never entered my thoughts, as to the fact that one day I may be the minister for our amazing further higher education institutions and science.”

But the portfolio’s challenges are clear. One in five, or 21.6 per cent, of teaching and research staff at Scottish universities are EU nationals, and Europeans make up 10.6 per cent of taught postgraduates, 16.2 per cent of research postgraduates and 7.9 per cent of undergraduates, according to Scottish Funding Council figures.

As Lochhead sees it: “We’ve got more EU nationals working in our universities and research institutes than elsewhere in the UK, we’ve got more students from Europe studying at Scottish colleges and universities, more than anywhere else in the UK, we get a bigger slice of the EU research funding in Scotland than any other part of the UK. So, we disproportionately benefit from EU membership, and that underpins the economy to the tune of billions of pounds, and therefore, if we were to have a Brexit, that would inflict disproportionate damage in Scotland.”

On research funding, Lochhead says he is “profoundly worried about the impact of Brexit on Scotland’s research and innovation sectors, because they’re so dependent on EU collaboration”.

“And it’s not just about the immediate impact of Brexit. If we don’t have EU citizens feeling that they can come easily to the UK, to study at a Scottish university or work here as a researcher, we’re going to suffer down the line, because they’re not going to graduate here, they’re not going to start spin-off companies here, they’re not going to develop scientific expertise here or build a collaboration across Europe. And they will do that elsewhere, potentially,” he says. “We’ll have the immediate impact, but then we will pay the price several years down the line.”

Scotland has benefited enormously from participating in Horizon 2020, the EU research and innovation programme. Lochhead says he is “putting the case to the UK Government” that whether or not Brexit happens, “we can maintain full participation” in Horizon.

“I think that my UK counterpart sees the case for full participation in Horizon 2020, but unfortunately, once again, that’s a decision being taken by the UK Treasury,” he says, adding:

I think the idea that we will maintain the same level of research funding post-Brexit as we get just now is pie in the sky.

“Whatever the scenarios are, if Brexit proceeds, we’ll be in a much more disadvantageous position, it will be a step backwards.”

Even when it comes to UK-wide research funding, Scotland will be disproportionately affected.

“We get a disproportionate share of UK funds because of the expertise we have within our own universities. If we lose European funds, and the UK research funds become under more pressure as a result of that, I also fear that we will face an uphill task to maintain our share of UK research funds. We have to make sure we’re fleet of foot and on top of our game when it comes to making bids for UK research funds, to make sure we can try and plug any hole that’s created by leaving Europe if that goes ahead.”

Brexit has caused anxiety among EU nationals working in Scotland’s universities and research institutes. Lochhead has heard of examples of EU nationals working in Scottish research and educational institutions “who have already left to go back to their home countries”.

“Not always just because of their own uncertainty over their own status, but their families – they have maybe spouses or children and they don’t know what their status is going to be,” he explains. “So, they’ve just thought, right, enough’s enough, we’ll just relocate back to our home countries, and then we lose their brain power, we lose their contribution to university life, which we want to be international and open, we lost their contribution to the economy, and their knowledge, as I said. We don’t want a brain drain like that, and we have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Lochhead adds: “A lot of universities elsewhere in Europe, I understand, are now seeing this as an opportunity to attract the best academics, the best researchers to their institutions, because they know they can offer freedom of movement, access to European funds and lead European collaborations.”

He says the Scottish Government is working with universities “to look at the other options of activity”.

“Internationalisation of universities is a big agenda. If you had a world map on the wall, you’d be taken aback by how many of our universities have got overseas campuses around the world, and that’s got huge advantages. And I’m putting together a national initiative to tap into that, and create a network of international alumni, working in partnership for universities.

I think Scotland doesn’t do enough to tap into the millions of graduates around the world.

The conversation turns to whether enough progress is being made to encourage women to study and work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). “I’m encouraged there’s progress, but I do realise there’s not enough progress. And we have a mixed picture out there. There are now some fantastic initiatives taking place to attract more females to take up STEM subjects, and then STEM careers, but we do have a wider problem in that quite often we have students graduating after studying STEM subjects but not being in STEM careers. They may be snapped up by the financial sector, for instance, because of their mathematical skills.”

Scotland needs tens of thousands more engineers by 2020, but women only took up five per cent of engineering modern apprenticeships in 2016. Holyrood puts this statistic to Lochhead. “When I speak to the private sector, they tell me they’re now wanting to address this. We do need our companies to do a lot more to attract female apprentices,” he says.

Another of the biggest issues on Lochhead’s agenda is “how we can encourage teachers to have the confidence to teach STEM”. He says a recent grant scheme in that area was “oversubscribed”, which showed a “huge appetite”.

“We now have to look at how we can work with the private sector and industry. There’s no point private companies and industry complaining to me that we do have enough skills in STEM, when they themselves could play a much bigger role in encouraging STEM skills in schools,” he says.

And does he think he is creating a Scotland where his 11-year-old son, the budding scientist, will want to work in the future? “Well, absolutely,” he says. “I’d love my own children to see themselves as European and world citizens, but I’d like them to have the opportunity of working in their own country in high-value jobs, if that’s what they choose to do.”

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