Tory education spokeswoman 'uncomfortable' with own party's policy at Westminster
Scottish universities want political leaders to address the issues of fees for EU students, the student visa regime, and tax incentives for philanthropic giving and investment in research as part of the independence referendum campaign.
In a policy briefing published by umbrella group Universities Scotland, ahead of the Holyrood Higher Education Conference 2012, the sector set out the issues which it wants policymakers to address in the two years ahead of the 2014 referendum.
The foremost issue was the UK’s student visa regime, which Universities Scotland convener Professor Peter Downes labelled a “poisonous gun” pointed at the higher education sector in his speech to the conference on 29 November.
Downes was backed by Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith MSP, who said she was “not comfortable” with her own party’s policy at Westminster.
“One of the key threats to universities’ success comes from an element of UK government policy,” Downes told delegates. “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, it’s hard to see a bigger risk, or a more poisonous gun pointed at our collective success.” His comments came on the same day as official figures revealed a 60,000 drop in net migration, including 20,000 fewer foreign students coming to the UK.
Reducing net migration to ‘tens of thousands’ is a key policy commitment of the Conservative Party.
However, in a panel discussion at last week’s conference, Smith said she had raised the issue with UK universities minister, David Willetts.
“Let me say very categorically that I am not comfortable with the current policy of the UK Government,” Smith told delegates.
“I have to say I agree with what Boris Johnson said on his recent visit to India that it is time for students to be exempted [from net immigration statistics].
“Every time I go round universities across Scotland, I see the benefits that you have, not only for your graduate and postgraduate population, but also for your staff, from foreign nationals who are working so hard in your universities.” The Universities Scotland briefing states that: “The UK’s visa regime is now significantly more restrictive than that applied by a range of competitor nations who are vigorously seeking to attract talented learners from around the world.
“This places the UK, including Scotland, at a competitive disadvantage.”