Universities Scotland convener uses strong language as figures show drop in foreign applications
A leading figure in Scotland’s university sector has labelled the UK Government’s policy on student visas a “poisonous gun” and the biggest threat to higher education in Scotland.
Speaking at the Holyrood Higher Education Conference at Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh, Universities Scotland convener Peter Downes – who is also principal and vice-chancellor of Dundee University – said: “One of the key threats to universities’ success comes from an element of UK government policy. Scotland and the UK in general has a brilliant track record of excellence-driven growth in international recruitment.
“This is a success for Scotland in so many ways, not just economically but also as a fundamental part of a free exchange of people and ideas that keeps us constantly learning and growing, and is a key way in which we are securing many thousands of passionate ambassadors for Scotland in the world’s fastest developing economies.
“It seems to me utterly incomprehensible that the UK Border Agency (UKBA) in practice is putting that in danger, creating a competitive disadvantage for the UK and sending out the international message that the government does not really welcome talented students to our shores.
“As I scan the policy horizon, its hard to see a bigger risk, or a more poisonous gun pointed at our collective success.”
His comments come on the same day that figures released by the UK Government revealed a significant fall in net migration, with 183,000 people arriving in the UK compared to a figure of 242,000 for the previous year.
The 60,000 fall in net migration in the year to March 2012 included a 20,000 fall in overseas students.
Reducing net migration is a key policy pledge of the Conservative Party, who want to reduce it to “tens of thousands”.
However, universities north and south of the border have claimed that an aggressive policy of reducing the number of student visas issued and strictly enforcing standards on sponsor further and higher education institutions will damage the UK’s reputation overseas, reduce applications to reputable universities and colleges, and ultimately harm economic growth.
At the start of the current academic year, thousands of students at London Metropolitan University were threatened with deportation when the institution was stripped of its right to host foreign students by the UKBA for breaches of its sponsor status.
A number of Scottish colleges have also had their sponsor status suspended by the UKBA.
SNP MSP George Adam, who sits on the Scottish Parliament’s education committee and was attending the conference, said: “This is yet another warning from a substantial figure that the UK Government can’t simply brush off. While the Tories spread baseless scare stories about higher education and independence, the reality is that real damage is being done right now – on their watch.
“Just recently, the SCDI warned the Scottish Parliament’s Education Committee that the ‘biggest source of concern’ to research in Scotland was Westminster’s tightening of student visas.
“Scotland’s universities currently participate in a wide range of international research funding collaborations involving multiple funding sources, including national research councils in many countries and international agencies (including the EU), who support the cutting edge research – for which Scotland’s universities rightly are recognised.
“Scotland’s universities punch well above their weight, but if they are to continue to do so we need the powers of an independent Scotland to ensure that it is not sabotaged by short-sighted decisions at Westminster.”
UK Immigration Minister Mark Harper said: “‘Our tough policies are taking effect and this marks a significant step towards bringing net migration down from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands by the end of this Parliament.
“At the same time, we continue to attract the brightest and best: these figures show that there has been a small increase in the number of sponsored student visa applications for the University sector — and a further increase in student visit visas. It’s clear that international students continue to come to the UK’s world renowned universities.’”