Short on time? Here are the highlights:
- A campaign to expand post-study work rights for international students in Scotland has been gathering steam over the last two years
- It culminated early this year with formal proposals to the UK government to extend additional post-study work rights to foreign graduates in Scotland
- In a formal response on 19 October, the British government rejected those proposals
- The Scottish Parliament has since continued to lobby for change, on the strength of a consensus opinion among educators, political parties, and employers that the current visa policy has had a significant negative economic impact in Scotland
The UK government has rejected a call for expanded post-study work rights for international students in Scotland, but the Scottish government is continuing to bring the issue forward.
The debate over special provisions for foreign students in Scotland harks back to the September 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Following the majority vote that saw the country opt to remain within the UK, a special government commission began to lay the foundation for expanded post-study work rights for foreign graduates in Scotland. At stake is Scotland’s interest in reversing a 2012 policy decision that saw the UK eliminate the previous Tier 1 visa path by which foreign graduates were able to stay and work after their studies.
The campaign gathered steam earlier this year when Universities Scotland filed a paper with the Scottish Parliament’s Devolution (Further Powers) Committee that estimated the cost of the 2012 policy change at £254 million (US$315 million) through 2015.
Even more striking is that this figure was based on declining enrolments from only India and Nigeria, although these are two of Scotland’s key non-EU student markets. The number of Indian students in Scotland fell by 60% between 2012 and 2015, and Nigerian enrolment dropped off by 22% over the period.
All told, Universities Scotland estimates the policy change to have resulted in a loss of 5,400 international enrolments at Scottish institutions. “Scotland is losing out in the recruitment of international students to Australia, New Zealand, America, and Canada because the UK has one of the least competitive policies on post-study work in the English-speaking world,” said a related campaign statement from the Scottish university body.
The Scottish Affairs Committee, which is a committee of the UK parliament, published its recommendations to government on 15 February 2016. The committee observed that the number of non-EU graduates moving on to work visas in Scotland after their studies has declined by 80% since 2012, and it argued that expanded post-study work rights for international students in Scotland should be reinstated: “We recommend…that the UK Government enter into discussions with the Scottish Government to explore introducing formal post-study work schemes for international higher education students graduating from Scottish further and higher education institutions.”
The British government formally replied on 19 October 2016, and it has rejected the committee’s proposals. The government argues that the existing visa options are sufficient for international students in Scotland, and notes that, “Applying different immigration rules to different parts of the UK would complicate the immigration system, harming its integrity, and cause difficulties for employers with a presence in more than one part of the UK.”
Scotland’s International Development and Europe Minister Dr Alasdair Allan has challenged the government’s findings and has taken the case directly to the UK Minister of State for Immigration Robert Goodwill, who has agreed to meet with Dr Allan on an “urgent” basis.
“We are dismayed that the UK Government has again chosen to ignore a wide range of interests and concerns in Scotland,” said Dr Allan. “There is consensus in Scotland, among business, education and every political party…that we need a return of a post-study route to allow talented students to remain and contribute to the Scottish economy. The evidence provided on this issue to the Scottish Affairs Committee was clear – and it is time that the UK Government started listening to Scotland and providing an immigration system that meets our needs. Scotland’s immigration needs are different to the rest of the UK and the return of a post-study work visa would be an important economic lever to Scotland.”
It is unclear how the Scottish campaign will proceed from here, except that the consensus opinion in favour of expanded post-study work rights remains in place and it appears as well that the Scottish Parliament is prepared to continue to pursue the matter.
The urgency of any such devolution of powers to (or variations in national policy for) Scotland is further accentuated by the looming Brexit negotiations with Europe. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that it is “highly likely” that Scotland would hold a second independence referendum in the year following Britain’s departure from the EU.
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