We all now know that the September 2014 Scottish referendum ended with a majority vote (55.3%) against the proposition that Scotland establish itself as an independent country. Even so, the campaign leading up to the referendum ballot revealed some profound political tensions, and a strong drive on the part of Scotland to gain greater autonomy within the United Kingdom. Indeed, the referendum result, supported as it was by assurances from the UK government that it would transfer additional powers to the Scottish Parliament, has set the stage for a further, legislated devolution of power to Edinburgh.
This process was formalised with the formation of the Smith Commission immediately in the wake of the referendum. The commission filed its report in November 2014, and among the many issues noted for further consideration was an item of particular interest to international educators:
“The Scottish and UK governments should work together to explore the possibility of introducing formal schemes to allow international higher education students graduating from Scottish further and higher education institutions to remain in Scotland and contribute to economic activity for a defined period of time.”
In essence, this recommendation anticipates a distinct visa process for international graduates of Scottish institutions. At present, foreign students in Scotland must apply for a visa via the UK Home Office, thereby placing Scotland-bound students under the same increasingly restrictive policies that apply to all students hoping to study in the UK.
It wasn’t that long ago, however, that Scotland operated a distinct scheme for post-graduation work opportunities. Under the “Fresh Talent” programme, international students were able to stay in Scotland and work for up to two years after completing their academic programmes. “But [Fresh Talent] was scrapped in 2012,” notes The Scotsman. “Now, if students want to stay, they must re-apply under the more restrictive Tier 2 visa system.”
In its formal submission to the Smith Commission, Universities Scotland set out the case for devolution of immigration powers to the Scottish Parliament:
“The university sector’s most urgent ‘ask’ from a limited devolution of immigration policy is the capacity to re-introduce a two-year post-study work entitlement for international students graduating from Scottish higher education institutions.
This could be limited to work entitlement in Scotland only, which would therefore have no impact on the management of migration totals in the rest of the UK. Such a move would deliver a positive benefit for Scotland, which has a strong cross-party consensus on the value of high-skill immigration. Furthermore, strict limitations on the location of work entitlement would respect the different views on immigration in parts of the rest of the UK and the UK government’s right to continue with its immigration policy.”
In its May 2015 report on the devolution process, a special committee of the Scottish Parliament revisited the issue and noted, “The Committee reinforces the recommendation of the Smith Commission…and believes that this important issue should be addressed through discussion between the two governments in advance of the introduction of any new bill after the UK General Election.”
The outcomes of any such discussions are not yet clear but the UK government introduced its proposed devolution legislation, the “Scotland Bill 2015/16”, on 28 May 2015. The bill continues to work its way through the legislative process with various amendments up to this writing.
It is clear, however, that the political sentiment with respect to student migration is markedly different among policymakers in Edinburgh than is the case in London. Alastair Sim, Director of Universities Scotland, said earlier this year: “Scottish universities need action from government to improve its post-study work offer. We are losing out in key markets as our competitors take steps to attract more international student talent.”
Alasdair Allan, the Minister for Learning, put it even more bluntly in a recent interview with The Scotsman: “The Scottish government is not on the same page as the UK government – we deplore irresponsible, negative rhetoric on immigration.”
Trending the wrong way
The issue of post-graduation work rights for international students finds its force in the recent trend of declining or falling enrolment for non-European Union students in Scottish institutions.
Recent-year trends in Scotland mirror those in the UK as a whole. The number of non-EU students in Scotland grew marginally in 2013/14 (1% growth compared to 2012/13), after registering a modest decline the year before.
Also mirroring the broader trend in the UK, first-year enrolments from key growth and emerging markets have fallen off sharply for Scotland over the last couple of years.
Source countries such as China, India, and Nigeria all declined between 2012/13 and 2013/14 – by -2%, -12%, and -9% respectively. For the moment, some of those losses have been offset by countervailing gains from other markets, such as Canada (10% increase) and Thailand (+15%), but the softening enrolment from some of the world’s largest and most important education markets has certainly been alarming for educators and other stakeholders in Scotland.
The £312 million question
The latest Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) numbers indicate that 28,610 non-EU students were enrolled in Scottish higher education in 2013/14. A recent economic impact study by PwC in Scotland puts the number somewhat higher at 34,670 students for the 2014 calendar year (and for all levels of study).
PwC calculates the gross economic impact of non-EU enrolment in Scotland at £312 million per year (roughly US$481 million), with a net benefit of £257 million to the Scottish economy.
Lindsey Paterson is the consultancy’s higher education specialist in Scotland and she has said of the analysis, “Our Scottish universities and colleges are competing in a global marketplace and it’s vital that government supports them in attracting the brightest academic talent…With a lot at stake, not just for the Scottish and UK economy but for the future growth and prosperity of our higher education establishments, it’s clear that more needs to be done to inform and improve immigration policies and targets.”
PwC has also argued that the UK would be better served by classifying international students as temporary visitors as opposed to migrants, and that opening up opportunities for international students to stay and work after graduation would improve Britain’s competitive position in international education markets.
Scottish educators, meanwhile, are forging ahead with their own internationalisation and recruitment efforts. The University of Edinburgh, for example, has announced plans to increase the proportion of international students in its student body from a reported 41% in 2012/13 to 50% over the long term. Roughly two-thirds of the university’s 9,000+ international students are from outside of the EU at present, and it aims to add by “at least 2,000” more students from beyond the European Union by 2016.