When I came to this country more than four decades ago, I came with minimal education. At that time, the important thing was not education but financial security for loved ones back home. Times have changed, and today, the importance of education is recognised.
At the moment, Scotland is home to just under 15,000 students from India and China, and we host almost 17,000 students from the European Union. Scotland is a welcoming and flexible country. Our universities and colleges have worldwide reputations for excellence. That is why overseas students are willing to invest not only their time but their money in our higher education institutions. There is no doubt that Scotland has gained considerably from the fresh ideas and new thinking that students from all continents have brought with them.
The economic advantages of being open and flexible cannot be ignored. The economic benefits are gained not only from students but from their visiting families. That is evident in relation to students who come here to study from the far east and the subcontinent, whose families often visit Scotland more than once. Their positive impact is felt in local businesses and services and in our tourism industry. It is clear that international students benefit not just the institutions but the country in which they study.
Overseas students also contribute to the success of our higher education institutions. Research shows that, on average, students from abroad who study in our universities finish with higher level degrees. That undoubtedly motivates Scottish students to compete at the same level.
Having said that, Scotland has one of the worst records in Europe for sending students overseas. The benefits of sending students abroad are, for some, more difficult to understand, but students who have experienced a truly international education testify to that extraordinary experience. When we send our students overseas, many of them return with fresh thinking and new skills that enhance society and benefit us all.
We cannot underestimate the importance of forging worldwide cultural ties. That is why I am delighted that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning spent time in China to strengthen our educational exchange there. The challenge is for us to continue to welcome and accommodate our international students while encouraging Scottish students to reap the benefits of an international education. I am delighted that the Government has taken up the challenge and is working towards an even smarter and more skilled Scotland.