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It has been 994 days since the European Union referendum. Yet, as we all know, because Westminster and the United Kingdom Government remain engulfed in chaos, we still do not have any clarity as to where Scotland and the UK will be in 15 days’ time.
It happens to be science week, and I remind Parliament that our scientific and research excellence is going to be disproportionately harmed by Brexit. I will outline the Scottish Government’s latest understanding of what Brexit means for our further and higher education sectors more generally. I assure colleagues that we are doing all that we can to ensure that our colleges and universities continue to thrive.
As I was reminded on my visit to the University of Strathclyde yesterday and on my visit to the University of the West of Scotland this morning, any visit to such an institution brings home the international character of our campuses
. Some of the best brains in Europe choose to study and work in Scotland, and EU researchers are driving forward our science and innovation. It is utter madness that the United Kingdom Government is willing to damage that success and the rich cultural vein that adds so much to student and academic life in Scotland and to our economy. I say to our EU staff and students directly: you are welcome here, you are valued members of our community in Scotland and we want you to remain.
There can be no good Brexit. For many people, it is a deeply personal and emotive issue. At a recent event at the University of the Highlands and Islands, I met Florence, who is originally from Hamburg. At the question-and-answer event, as she was asking me a question, she broke down in tears because of Brexit. Florence is one of the many people who have chosen to come and live, work and build lives here, in Scotland. Nobody should be made to feel that way. It is completely unacceptable, and the UK Government’s botched handling of the entire Brexit process is to blame.
The UK Government’s stance threatens the continued success of our colleges and universities. It means a loss of talent; a loss of access to EU programmes, reducing opportunities for student mobility, research collaborations and funding; and a loss of reputation on the global stage. All of that is made much worse by the UK Government’s draconian approach to immigration. For instance, the proposed £30,000 earning threshold will prevent a majority of early-career researchers from coming to the UK. The recent announcement of an exemption for PhD-level jobs from the UK immigration threshold is a welcome and necessary but small first step by the UK Government. Much more needs to be done.
In a stunning display of just how little the UK Government knows or cares about Scotland, its proposed temporary leave-to-remain scheme would fall short of covering students who are studying for a four-year degree in Scotland. To suggest that EU students will have to apply for a visa for a further year—to make it up to four years—at a cost of up to £840 is an outrage. That proposal must be dropped immediately. I have raised those issues with my UK counterpart, Chris Skidmore, and today I am seeking a meeting with the Secretary of State for Scotland—if he is still in post—requesting his urgent intervention on the issue. Throughout my meetings with the UK Government and other devolved Administrations, I have emphasised Scotland’s distinct needs, including by calling for the reintroduction of the post-study work visa and full participation in programmes such as Erasmus+.
The European Commission’s recent emergency regulation on the Erasmus programme is very welcome. It allows current Erasmus students to complete their studies abroad regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and shows a degree of leadership that is sorely lacking from the UK Government. However, that regulation applies only to current Erasmus students and, as I said, much more needs to be done. If there is no deal, Erasmus funding is in jeopardy for all students who are involved in work or study placements across Europe from 29 March onwards. In the next few weeks, I will travel to London to meet Mr Skidmore again to raise that issue, among others.
Throughout the past few months, I have consulted extensively with the sectors. Last November, I convened the first ever joint sector Brexit summit to discuss the expected impact of Brexit. I want to build on that and have asked the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council to host another summit next month.
There are some immediate challenges that we are addressing as a matter of urgency. Depending on whether and how the UK leaves the EU, UK citizens who are studying for full degrees in the EU may suddenly find themselves liable for international student fees, medical care and travel insurance. Our estimates suggest that hundreds of students may be affected. Facing untenable increases in costs, many of those students—perhaps even the vast majority of them—may simply have to come back to Scotland. Their studies will have been cut short and they will come home with no degree and their dreams destroyed—all because of a Brexit that Scotland did not vote for. That damage will have been compounded by the UK Government’s botched handling of the process.
The Scottish Government has been working urgently with the sector to prepare for students returning to Scotland and to minimise any disruption to their studies. The Student Awards Agency for Scotland has provided clear information and guidance for such students on its website, which will guide them in transferring to a Scottish institution if that becomes necessary. I reassure those students that, if they left Scotland to study in the EU and Brexit means that they are forced to give up their studies, we guarantee to provide student support and tuition fees to students who are eligible to enable them to study in Scotland. That is a guarantee that they can bank on in these uncertain times.
We are also taking action to consider longer-term rights for Scottish citizens who are living in the EU to access further and higher education student support. That will ensure that eligible citizens residing in the EU, the European Economic Area and Switzerland post-Brexit can return to Scotland to study in the future and will be able to access the same support that they are currently eligible for. Members will know that, in respect of EU students who are currently studying here or thinking of studying here, we have already committed to providing tuition fees for eligible EU students who are commencing their studies in academic year 2019-20 for the duration of their course. That guarantee will remain in the event of a no-deal Brexit. We are also in active discussions with the sectors about how we might support students beyond that period.
As well as attracting talented EU citizens, our university research is successful in attracting funding from horizon 2020, the EU’s flagship competitive research and innovation funding programme. A country’s attractiveness as a place in which to do research is fundamentally dependent on that country’s access to international schemes. Since horizon 2020 launched, in 2014, more than €558 million in funding for research and innovation has been secured by Scottish organisations. However, we are already beginning to see worrying evidence of the damage that we are facing. Catherine Heymans, a renowned professor of astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh, is shifting the majority of her research activities to the University of Bonn, and she has confirmed that Brexit is the reason behind her move. Ninety per cent of her research funding has been provided by the EU, and Professor Heymans does not believe that that funding would be replaced were she to remain in the UK. The latest figures show that the total share of UK and Scottish participations in horizon 2020 projects is falling, and our researchers tell us that EU partners who would have wished to collaborate are avoiding doing so with partners in the UK due to the on-going uncertainty.
The Scottish Government is seeking to provide much-needed clarity where we can and to represent fully the interests of our staff and researchers in our negotiations with the UK Government. To provide just one example, we have demanded that more information be urgently provided concerning the UK Government’s review, by the Alan Turing Institute, of UK alternatives to horizon Europe.
My officials and I, along with the Scottish funding council, are having regular discussions with the sectors in Scotland on those and other issues. That includes liaising with staff and researchers on issues that affect them directly. We want to understand their concerns and to support them in any way that we can. I have, of course, taken those concerns directly to the European Commission, when appropriate. Last December, I led a delegation representing Scotland’s research interests to Brussels, where we highlighted our world-leading credentials and continuing desire to work with European partners and benefit from European funding streams.
This week, the Deputy First Minister and I met the chair and chief executive of UK Research and Innovation. If UKRI is going to play a role in plugging some of the gap in research funding left by Brexit, we need Scotland to benefit and devolution to matter.
Much of my time and that of my officials is now being taken up by considering how best to respond to the challenges and threats of Brexit. Beyond the examples that I have highlighted, much work is being progressed across the Scottish Government, from resilience planning and external communications to meetings with stakeholders and the UK Government.
I am pleased to confirm that, today, we have published our Brexit action plan, highlighting the broad scope of activity that we are currently engaged in across my portfolio. I will write to each of our college and university principals to highlight that and to continue the dialogue that we have established with the sector on the impact of Brexit.
In closing, I emphasise that the Scottish Government will continue to do everything we can to protect Scotland’s interests in a challenging and uncertain context. We recognise and value the enormous contributions that EU citizens make to our universities, our colleges and our nation, and we will, of course, continue to make the case—passionately—for the benefits of EU membership.
I thank the minister for prior sight of his statement. Members in the chamber are well aware that the Scottish Conservatives have expressed considerable concerns about some of the challenges resulting from Brexit and I put on record that I have some sympathy for the comments within the minister’s statement.
Notwithstanding that and the on-going uncertainty about the final Brexit outcome, some areas of responsibility lie with the Scottish Government and it is on those areas that I will ask the minister two questions, if I may.
First, Universities Scotland has been clear about its concerns regarding the future fee status of EU students. We welcome the commitment that the minister has made on that with regard to the academic year 2019-20, but I note that, in his statement, he also said that the Scottish Government is looking at what might happen beyond that period. Will he update members on when the Scottish Government will confirm its policy choice on the fee status of EU students for courses beginning in academic year 2020-21 and beyond?
Secondly, assuming that Brexit will mean that Scottish and EU students will no longer be treated as groups with reciprocal rights to equal treatment, is it the intention of the Scottish Government to commit to retaining the £90 million or so that it currently spends on EU students and putting that back into the higher education sector? As the minister will know, Universities Scotland has made a strong call for that commitment to be made.
I thank Liz Smith for the spirit in which she asked her questions.
On her first point, which was in relation to the status of EU students and the guarantee that we have given to pay their fees for academic year 2019-20, as I said in my statement, we continue to reflect on what the outcome of the current shambolic process at Westminster might be for Scotland and the UK’s status in the European Union after the end of this month.
There are a number of issues for us to take into account. First, there is the disruption to our institutions if the thousands of EU students studying and playing a vital role in our colleges and universities were suddenly to become international students. We do not know the extent of the disruption in respect of those who intend to come and study at our universities and colleges, but there would be an element of disruption there.
Secondly, if we were to pay the fees of EU students in the following academic year, which we are being called to provide clarity on now, we must note that the students’ current status would not allow them to work in Scotland. I hope that we all agree that that would be wholly unacceptable, which is why we need powers over post-study work visas and other aspects of immigration. I believe that there is cross-party consensus on that in this Parliament. With such powers, we could take the right decisions with regard to EU students, so that they could make a contribution to Scottish society if they chose to come and live in this country.
The number 1 factor on which we need clarity is the outcome of the votes this week in Westminster. We want some sensible decisions made in that absolutely chaotic process.
We will also reflect on Liz Smith’s second point, which is about the money that would potentially be saved if we were not paying EU fees. We are listening closely to the case that is being put by the further and higher education sectors, but we need clarity from Westminster.
The minister is right to criticise the Tory Government for the chaos and the threat of Brexit. I associate members on the Labour benches with his assurances to EU staff and students that they are valued and welcome here in Scotland.
The Scottish Government did not create this uncertainty—that is for sure—but Ms Smith was right that there are some areas on which the Scottish Government must provide the required clarity and I fear that, in response to her questions, that clarity was not forthcoming.
I will return to the points that are critical for universities.
Does the minister understand that university prospectuses for 2020-21 are out now, so potential EU students need to have some certainty about their fee status? Active discussion is not enough; some clarity, at least, could be given about that aspect of studying in Scotland. Will not the minister simply give the guarantee that students need and which Universities Scotland is asking for about their tuition fee status? I take the minister’s point about other things being less clear, but on that, at least, clarity could be given.
The same applies to the resources that are currently spent on tuition fees for EU students, which amount to around £90 million. The university sector is simply asking for a guarantee that, if less than that amount is required for that purpose—whether all of it or some of it—the resource will not be removed from the higher education sector. That is a simple thing to ask the Government to commit to, especially with FE and HE facing such uncertainty.
My last point is: will the minister explain to us why the Government thought that this was a good year in which to cut college and university funding in the budget?
On Iain Gray’s demand for clarity, he should be asking not this Parliament or this Government for clarity on what is happening with regard to Brexit; he should be asking the UK Conservative Government for clarity, given the chaos that is happening at Westminster this week alone. Let us get clarity on what is happening down there to enable us to take proper decisions for the future of further and higher education here in Scotland—indeed, he could ask the leader of his own party, Jeremy Corbyn, for some clarity on his position on Brexit at the same time.
We are well aware of the potential impacts on EU students in Scotland if there is a departure from the EU without any deal. However, this week of all weeks, we must absolutely focus on getting the right decision for EU students in Scotland, which is our continued membership of the European Union and, failing that, a good deal that enables the good arrangements that we have with other European countries to continue.
We are in serious talks with the further and higher education sectors about all the various scenarios that might happen over the coming weeks and months and about the potential impact that those might have on further and higher education. We will take a decision that maintains our links with Europe and does what is best for the future of Scotland’s students and our further and higher education institutions.
Like colleagues, I thank the minister for advance sight of his statement and the work that the Government is doing to try to limit the damage from someone else’s crisis.
S pecifically in relation to Erasmus+, as it stands, if Brexit goes ahead, we will lose both our right to freedom of movement and the UK’s membership of the Erasmus+ programme. We could, in theory, participate as a third country, but that is not the same as being a member of Erasmus+. This Parliament has taken evidence from colleges and youth clubs, which , in particular, have made the point that, without freedom of movement, the administrative burden of trying to participate in the programme is simply too much.
Therefore, what work is the Scottish Government doing to support those who benefit most from participation in the programme, namely, our college students and those who are involved through youth programmes?
Ross Greer highlights the huge contribution that Erasmus makes to the experience of Scottish students and—indeed—the experience of EU students who come to study in Scotland for a short time through Erasmus.
We have made the strongest representations to the UK Government on the UK and Scotland continuing to have full participation in Erasmus+. We want to see the UK Government adopt that position and put it into practice as soon as possible.
That is not its position just now; we have a lack of commitment. Therefore, there is a real danger that if we leave Europe without a deal on 29 March, Scotland’s participation and the disproportionate benefits that we get from Erasmus—because, per head of population, far more students from Scotland participate in Erasmus compared with the number who participate from the rest of the UK—will be jeopardised. Losing out on Erasmus would disproportionately harm Scotland and would, of course, damage the experience of EU students at the same time.
The situation just now is that leaving without a deal, will—as I said—clearly jeopardise the position of Scottish students. As I mentioned, we have a guarantee, which I welcome, from the European Commission that current students who are in Europe as part of Erasmus will—irrespective of whether there is no deal or a deal at the end of this month—be able to continue with and complete their programme in Europe. That is welcome.
However, we need the support of the UK Government to put the funding guarantees in place and ensure that we get full participation in Erasmus+ going forward.
I, too, have sympathy for the minister given the lack of clarity that is being caused by what is currently going on. However, it is a bit puzzling why an action plan has been produced that cannot have many actions in it because of the lack of clarity.
Therefore, I will perhaps ask my question another way around.
Catriona Mullay is a Shetlander who is studying at the European University Institute in Florence—in other words, she is a Scot who has travelled to Europe for her studies. She is a postgraduate student and is just about to enter a PhD there. She does not know what the situation with her fees will be from March—she does not even know whether she will be able to undertake her PhD. The Scottish Government has looked at statutory instruments, which were produced in London. Is the minister in a position to update Parliament on those and on the position for students in the kind of circumstances in which Catriona finds herself, where there is no certainty about her future study and no certainty about the fees for what she is currently undertaking? We will potentially lose having a Scot who would have gained valuable international experience studying overseas, as she might have to come back to Scotland.
Just as Tavish Scott expressed his sympathy for the position that I find myself in as Scotland’s further and higher education minister, I express my sympathy for the position that Mr Scott’s constituent, Catriona Mullay, finds herself in, because many Scots have benefited from attending the European University Institute.
I have written to the UK Government on that issue in the last week or two and have expressed my deep concern about the impact of Brexit on Scottish students’ ability to participate in the European University Institute. I have asked for action to be taken to allow participation in the institute and the flow of benefits to Scotland to continue.
In a separate letter, we wrote to the UK Government expressing our unhappiness with the approach taken to the statutory instruments designed to enable the UK to withdraw from the European University Institute. I will update the member on the outcome of that as soon as I can.
Last week, I attended the celebration of EU researchers in this Parliament, during which seven of our world-class universities demonstrated some of the work that they are doing and showed how important horizon 2020 is to Scotland’s attractiveness as a research destination. We already have a reputation for producing world-class research, some of which I am sure will be celebrated in the debate this afternoon. We also know that that research has been strengthened by EU citizens who work in Scotland, and by our membership of the European Union. What can the minister do to protect research collaboration with Europe?
Clare Adamson highlights such an important issue: the impact not only on researchers and students at Scottish institutions, but on the future of the Scottish economy. This morning I was at the University of the West of Scotland, where I spoke to students—many of whom were international and European students—who are involved in a £15 million programme that looks at the impact of 5G and involves a number of European countries. That is a European programme with European research money, of which we will be unable to take future advantage if we leave the EU with no deal.
As I mentioned in my statement, we are in close discussion with UKRI about Scotland’s ability to get UK research funding in the future, should that organisation try to fill the gap that would be left if we lost out on European programmes. I say again that if we leave the EU, the loss of horizon 2020 will have a disproportionate impact on Scotland, because we do better out of that programme than any other part of the UK. The best way to protect that is to continue our EU membership or to get a good deal that would allow our full participation in horizon 2020 to continue.
We have a guarantee from the UK Government that, irrespective of what will happen at the end of this month, any contract signed will be honoured up until 2020. However, I have been told that that commitment only covers part of horizon 2020 and that up to €50 million a year of research funding is not included in it. Once again, the UK Government has an unacceptable approach that does not recognise the importance of horizon 2020 to Scottish institutions or the Scottish economy.
Despite many points of contention in the minister’s statement, which Liz Smith has already commented on, the Scottish Conservatives have sympathy with and welcome the minister’s highlighting of horizon 2020. Will he at least join me in supporting the UK Government’s pledge to underwrite payments to the universities participating in horizon 2020?
As I have just said, we have very limited guarantees on the future participation of Scotland and the UK in horizon 2020, and that is simply not good enough. The UK Treasury is carrying out a value for money exercise before it takes further decisions on our future participation—with or without a deal. Scotland should be involved in that process, because we are the biggest beneficiary of horizon 2020, and the Scottish Government is enormously frustrated with its limited input to that value for money exercise and with the limited information that we are getting back from it. We know that horizon 2020 research funding is enormously valuable to Scotland; international collaboration and amazing initiatives are taking place across the length and breadth of Scotland’s colleges, universities and research institutions. We cannot afford to lose that, so I ask all parties to urge the UK Government to give us the guarantees that we require.
Last July, in a statement about the loss of horizon 2020 funding, the UK Government said:
“The government is working in partnership with UK Research and Innovation to develop a new International Research and Innovation Strategy. The Strategy will further set out our desire to build on the UK’s long tradition of international collaborations in research and innovation across all fields and our openness to international talent.”
There are just two weeks until exit day. Can the minister tell us whether that UK strategy has now been made clear to him and to the university sector and, if it has, what it means for the sector?
Clearly, we are very keen to make sure that Scotland takes maximum advantage of any UK Research and Innovation funds. Members will have noticed that there was an announcement this week of funding for the University of Edinburgh from one of the funds. That is welcome, but we have to remember that those are existing funds, and what we are talking about is European funding over and above those domestic UK funds, which has been worth €0.5 billion to our institutions and research community over the past few years alone. That pot of money is crucial. The international collaboration that is brought with it helps boost Scotland’s international reputation for research and innovation at the same time, which is an important part of this debate. It is about the benefits of soft diplomacy through scientific collaboration as well as the financial benefits. We need a lot more clarity from the UK Government to ensure that Scotland does not lose out should—heaven forbid—there be an exit from the European Union at the end of this month.
Given the potential loss of EU workers in key sectors such as health and social care, what is being done in further and higher education to identify potential gaps and take action to fill them, so that we do not have an absence of skills going forward?
That is an excellent question from James Kelly. At the forefront of my mind is how we ensure that we have the skills required for the future of the Scottish economy, given that we face a reduction in the number of young people through demographic changes in this country. If that were to be compounded by a reduction in the number of EU workers coming to this country, that would be highly damaging to Scotland’s future prospects. That is linked to the Brexit debate and how we work with our universities and colleges.
I reassure James Kelly that this is near the top of the agenda. It is linked to how we fund going forward, because we want to ensure that we address any skills gaps that arise through Brexit as well as other demographic changes. We are speaking to the colleges and universities about that, the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council is doing a great deal of work on that, and work is being done on skills alignment between all Scotland’s agencies through the Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board. That is very much at the centre of our attention at the moment.
I welcome the measures in the statement, particularly the assurances provided to students and EU nationals involved in the Erasmus+ scheme. I know about that, because I was an Erasmus-Socrates student. I would be grateful if, when the minister meets Mr Skidmore in a few weeks’ time, he could invite him to come to Scotland to speak to EU nationals and institutions in Scotland, including the Jack Kane centre in Edinburgh, which hosted the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee when we did our Erasmus+ inquiry. I am sure that the minister will be aware of that. If Mr Skidmore met students and people from Scotland, I am sure that it would encourage him to provide the assurances that are required about keeping the Erasmus+ scheme.
I know that Stuart McMillan has mentioned before how he benefited from the Erasmus scheme. He is a perfect example of where one can go in life by enriching one’s experience through such schemes. Indeed, I undertook a Carnegie Trust scholarship when I was a student and I travelled to Brussels and Copenhagen as part of my research for my dissertation. It fills me with horror to think that my children might not have the same advantages that I had through freedom of movement and the ability to go to other countries in that way.
Unfortunately, however, I think that Stuart McMillan has missed his opportunity, because Chris Skidmore was here just last week and he visited some institutions in Glasgow. He has told me—as indeed have the Scottish Conservatives today—that he is very sympathetic to the arguments made in relation to Erasmus and horizon 2020 and other dimensions of the Brexit debate. However, even he is reliant on the Home Office, the Treasury and the Prime Minister—and all the chaos at the heart of the Conservative Government—in trying to get some clarity so that he can take the right decisions. That clarity is ultimately what we require in order to get the right decisions for Scotland.
I will continue in the same constructive tone and candour that my colleague Liz Smith used.
In his statement, the minister mentioned announcements that were made in the spring statement yesterday, including the announcement on PhD level occupations being made exempt from the tier 2 visa cap. I could also mention newly updated rules on absences of up to 180 days that concern researchers who conduct fieldwork overseas and then apply to settle in the UK. Will the minister acknowledge—and perhaps welcome—those shifts and the willingness to listen to the concerns from across and outwith this chamber? I do not doubt that the minister is capable of being quite forthcoming in his views at his next meeting with the minister in London.
The changes that were announced yesterday are a small, necessary step forward, which, of course, I welcome, but it is important to convey to the chamber that it is a very small part of a much bigger picture. If we take the £30,000 salary threshold in the UK Government’s immigration policy, any institution will tell us that that will cover a small percentage of the researchers who come from other European countries to study or work in our country. Many earn far below £30,000, and it is not just them who are affected; it is their spouses as well. Researchers might come with a spouse who is on a lower wage than them and they will not be able to get into the country without some difficulty.
Of course, another thing that must be addressed urgently is the fact that temporary leave to remain is granted for three years, not the four years that are needed for the Scottish degree.
I welcome that the issues that the member mentioned are being addressed, but we have a long way to go to prevent the UK Government’s immigration policy from inflicting severe damage on Scottish further and higher education.
Will the minister clarify the action that the Scottish Government has taken—and might take—to support Scottish students who might be unable to complete their studies at an EU university? He mentioned, in particular, fees and medical care. Might we be able to bring about a situation in which they could complete their studies at those EU universities?
Again, with regard to this week’s votes in Westminster, we do not know what is going to happen over the next few weeks in the run-up to the end of the month. However, if there is no deal, Scottish undergraduate students who are studying full time in the EU will become international students and potentially will lose their rights. That could have devastating consequences. If there is no deal, a range of costs could be incurred, which would make it completely untenable and unaffordable for Scottish undergraduate students to continue their studies in EU institutions. Therefore, today, we are keen to emphasise our assurance to them that if—in horrific circumstances—they have to come back to Scotland to continue their studies here, they will be entitled to all the necessary support that Scottish students get. We will make sure that that is made available to them.