Despite support, and suggestions that it is potentially a negotiable Brexit issue, the UK Government’s recent response to the Committee’s report was clear. It held firm the view that the current system adequately addresses Scotland's needs and that it would complicate the UK system to have separate rules for Scotland.
Yesterday’s parliamentary Westminster Hall debate on post-study work schemes for Scotland provided another opportunity to voice concerns about whether Scottish universities, long renowned as global education leaders, will be able to continue to attract such a high level of foreign students post Brexit given the current visa restrictions.
The committee underlined the case for reconsidering how immigration arrangements meet the needs of Scotland in terms of enabling Scottish universities to attract students in the competitive global education market and help businesses to fill vacancies in high-skilled fields.
A key factor is that the country has a slower population growth and a lower life expectancy than the rest of the UK. Many people move to Scotland in their late teens and early 20s but there is a noticeable trend of people graduating in Scotland and leaving, which post-study work schemes could help to address.
The argument is that international students make an important contribution to Scotland’s higher education sector, and represent an invaluable source of skilled workers for Scottish businesses.
In its response to the Scottish Affairs Committee report, the UK Government underlined its commitment to attracting and retaining the best and brightest graduates but confirms its reluctance to introduce a new post study work visa in Scotland citing statistics which show many visa holders were either unemployed or in low skilled work. The previous system did allow individuals to be employed in low skilled jobs. This may have been partly due to the prevailing economic climate in 2010 when graduate level employment was hard to come by. It could be said that in the current economic climate some graduates are facing a similar challenge.
The response also referenced the increase in international student numbers since 2010.
Comparable statistics showing the growth in the number of international students in higher education amongst some of our competitors makes for interesting reading. During the period 2012-13 to 2013-14 there was an 8% increase in the United States, 11% in Canada and 8% in Australia. For 2013-14 to 2014-15, the increase in the United States was 10%. In the last year in Scotland, we see that growth was only 1%, after a decrease the previous year.
The response, while contending the current visa system is sufficient, highlights the trial to allow certain graduates to stay longer to find suitable employment.
This trial recently liberalised post graduate visa rules at four renowned English universities. The two-year scheme, which launched on 25 July, eases visa rules for those applying to master’s courses at the University of Bath, University of Cambridge, University of Oxford and Imperial College London in what is described as a test of a “differentiated approach” on student visas.
Looking at the wider context, £620 million of the Scottish budget is supported by the EU of which £94 million is for research at Scottish Universities, according to Audit Scotland. If this level of EU funding was to be lost and not replaced then this would have a significant impact on the Universities and their "brand" in an increasingly competitive international market. The introduction of a suitable post study work visa to attract greater numbers of international students could help to address both the financial and brand issues.
The EU's contribution to the sector's success goes well beyond funding. Doubts remain as to whether universities will be able to continue to attract the high level of fee paying foreign students post Brexit. That in turn may be partly influenced by the sector's ability to retain and attract calibre foreign academics who are renowned in their field.
It remains to be seen whether the Scottish Government's desire to reintroduce a post study visa system could be viewed as a realistically negotiable Brexit issue notwithstanding the stance adopted by the respective Governments to date.
This article appeared in the Herald on the 9th December.