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It is a pleasure to follow Sir David Evennett. Surprisingly, I found myself agreeing with some of what he said, particularly about further education.
I want to speak about tertiary education, rather than making a distinction between higher and further education. When we are talking about young people, we should be talking about positive destinations and trying to make sure that every young person has the opportunity to go on and be successful, wherever that should be. It gives me great pride to stand here as an MP from Scotland knowing that Scotland has the highest percentage of positive destinations for our young people anywhere in the UK.
The Queen’s Speech was full of money promises that cannot be met. The Prime Minister in his speech on Monday referred to a free trading United Kingdom and a high-wage, low-tax economy. That does not add up. It is not possible to continue cutting taxes and have well funded, well resourced public services. A recent “Panorama” programme painted a grim picture of the reality at the chalk face. Since 2015, schools in England have had real-terms cuts, with billions having been cut from school budgets, and this has had a huge impact on teachers and young people in those schools. A recent report from UCL on education reforms was critical of how these changes had fuelled inequality. For example, high-performing and improving schools are accepting fewer children from poorer backgrounds, and high levels of exclusions and the continued use of off-rolling—a practice not allowed in Scotland—mean that statistics and measures of success are skewed. More fundamentally, young people are missing out on their education.
The success or failure of any school rests with teachers, but with the advent of academies, schools can choose to pay teachers at scales of their making. That means that they can bypass negotiated national pay scales in order to stretch budgets further.
We hear politicians talk about our dedicated teachers. Perhaps we should ask them if they would be willing to teach a class of 30 teenagers on a salary of £24,000 a year. One teacher said to me, “ I would be better off working in a supermarket. At least I would earn some overtime.” Thankfully, in Scotland we do see teaching as a profession. We have protected and increased teachers’ pay. After their probation year, they earn £32,000 a year, £6,000 more than their counterparts south of the border. It is simply not good enough that teachers in England have been treated in this way.
The Government are supposedly committed to science, but university fees in this country are the highest in the industrialised world. Student loans are going through the roof, and it has never really been possible to tackle student debt. We are saddling young people with debt for the rest of their working lives. We now know that much of it is eventually written off anyway, so why are we doing this to them?
The greatest threat to our higher and further education sectors is, of course, Brexit. According to today’s edition of The Times, a Royal Society report states that funding for Horizon 2020 has fallen by a third, or half a billion euros, since 2015, and there has been a drop in UK applications. Critically, the UK is being seen as less attractive, and 35% fewer scientists are coming here through key schemes.
A hostile environment is the greatest challenge to academia. Immigration systems that talk of skill levels but make no allowance for skill needs cannot work for the sector. Research groups require people at many different levels, from technicians up to professors. We should be looking at skills rather than salaries. The research groups that we are trying to attract to the UK will want to come here in their entirety. If the professors and the leaders of the groups cannot bring their whole teams, they simply will not come. We also know that early-stage researchers—post-graduates—do not find the UK attractive. That affects our public services: it affects our education system, and it affects our NHS.
We welcome the change in the Government’s rhetoric on post-study work visas, but we need some details. When will the new system come into play? Has it been promoted? Young people from abroad are now seeing the UK as a possibility. Will the system be for entrants starting in 2020, or for students who are currently here?
A massive concern for us is the European temporary leave to remain visa, which has been described by Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, as an “act of deliberate malice”. Why would students consider coming to Scotland if it cannot be guaranteed that they will be able to complete their courses? The same applies to students coming to other parts of the UK for longer courses, such as medical or engineering degree courses. We need those people to come here.
This week, the Royal National Mòd, a celebration of Gaelic music, language and culture, is taking place in Glasgow. However, although Gaelic schools in Glasgow and across the central belt are bursting at the seams, we cannot keep up with the demand for teachers. There are teachers in Canada who want to come to the UK, but we cannot take them here because of immigration decisions made by the Home Office. We cannot get what we need for Scotland. Gaelic authors and singers, including one of my constituents, cannot come to Scotland because that decision is made by Arts Council England. Yes, immigration powers need to come to Scotland, and yes, we need them now.