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Universities (No-deal Brexit)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 17th September 2019.

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Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

3. To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the newly-released Universities UK survey, which claims that Scotland’s universities will lose staff and students in the event of a no-deal Brexit. (S5T-01782)

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

The survey further highlights that a no-deal Brexit is utterly unacceptable. Half of Scottish respondents report difficulties in retaining or recruiting European Union staff, and one third say that demand from EU students has fluctuated. We know that more than a quarter of Scottish university research staff are EU citizens. Scotland has the highest proportion of EU university enrolments in the United Kingdom.

The reality is that the UK is not, and cannot be, ready for a no-deal EU exit on 31 October. The UK Government must take no deal off the table. Our commitment to supporting eligible EU students commencing courses in academic year 2020-21 is a clear example of our determination to mitigate the effects of the UK Government’s deeply damaging position, and to keep Scotland an open and welcoming nation.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

The minister will undoubtedly join me in expressing relief that, after seven years of campaigning by our party, last week the UK Government performed a much-needed U-turn on its decision to remove the post-study work visa. Has his office assessed the impact that the past three years of pre-Brexit chaos, and a Tory Government that wants to end freedom of movement at all costs, have already had on the sector in terms of funding and in terms of recruitment and retention of staff and students?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I welcome the return of the post-study work visa, which the UK Government has announced in the past few days, and I pay tribute to the campaigning by the higher education sector in Scotland—our institutions and student organisations—and, of course, by colleagues in the Scottish Government who have worked in partnership with them ever since the original visa was scrapped. We welcome the fact that it has been replaced.

Gillian Martin asked about the impact of Brexit on our higher education sector. The findings of the survey that formed the subject of her first question correspond with the Scottish Government’s understanding. In that survey, 50 per cent of respondents said that they had already lost existing or potential staff to overseas universities, which they could directly attribute to the prospect of a no-deal Brexit; 40 per cent said that they had experienced fluctuations in collaboration among EU partners; and one in three said that they had already experienced fluctuations in demand from EU students. That chimes very much with the evidence that the Government has received on the damage that the threat of Brexit is doing to research projects in the higher education sector. In addition, key staff who are EU nationals are looking to return to their home countries; I have heard of many examples of that happening from many universities.

Any kind of Brexit would be deeply damaging to Scottish further and higher education and science, and a no-deal Brexit would be an absolute body blow to the sector.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

Scottish universities have, as far as they can, done a tremendous job in working with their staff and students from other EU countries to prepare for Brexit, but given that one in five academics in Scottish universities originates from another EU country, what can the Scottish Government do to ensure that they continue to want to work here? Does the minister agree that freedom of movement must be put back on the table by Boris Johnson as he speaks to his counterparts from the rest of the EU?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

It is absolutely the case that the removal of freedom of movement will make it very difficult for our universities to compete with the rest of Europe in a range of ways. I do not have time to go into all of them now, but I referred to some of those impacts in my previous answer. I absolutely support any calls for the UK Government to reinstate a commitment to freedom of movement and to a much better deal, if Brexit happens. Of course, the best outcome would be for there to be no Brexit at all, in which case we would have continuity of freedom of movement for students and staff in Europe, which would protect our universities.

The Scottish Government has reached out to institutions and to other European Governments to convey the message that Scotland will remain a welcoming and outward-looking internationalist country. That message has been warmly received by institutions across Europe and by European Governments.

Today, during a visit to the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Perth college, I spoke to overseas students who are studying languages there, who said that they had received that message and that they feel very comfortable living and studying in Scotland. Of course, they want our on-going support to make sure that that continues to be the case.

The Presiding Officer:

We have gone over time, but I will take a brief question from Oliver Mundell.

Photo of Oliver Mundell Oliver Mundell Conservative

Given that the sector highlights the uncertainty that exists, will the Scottish National Party commit to supporting a future Brexit deal? Does the minister regret the fact that his party’s members of Parliament at Westminster voted against the withdrawal agreement when it could have secured certainty back in March?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I urge Oliver Mundell and his Conservative colleagues to get their heads out of the sand and recognise the damage that is already being caused to our Scottish further and higher education and science sectors before Brexit has even happened. If Oliver Mundell cared about the future of our students, our knowledge economy and our universities and colleges, he would stop campaigning for Brexit and start campaigning against any kind of Brexit and support what would be the best outcome for the viability of Scottish further and higher education.