Burns night: Nicola Sturgeon offers international students a welcome but is unable to deliver visas
Scotland Welcomes the World - credit Universities Scotland
There were more than a few cheers and tears among students from over 68 nations at an international Burns night last night as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon welcomed them to Scotland.
Around 300 representatives of Scotland’s 50,000 overseas students attended the event, which was organised by Universities Scotland to kick off a campaign to attract international students.
“In an age where migration can be presented as a threat, let me say this to you, sincerely and very loudly and clearly: you are the latest generation of people coming to our country to make your contribution,” Sturgeon told the guests. “Your presence here in Scotland makes us stronger and better as a country and we are delighted to have you here. You are very welcome.”
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Students took to social media to endorse and spread the message.
Of course the First Minister’s words, and indeed the campaign itself, carry political weight, not least because they came on the day the High Court ruled on Britain’s exit from the European Union.
But while international students lapped up the warm welcome afforded by the First Minister and Scotland’s higher education institutions, the reality is their fate lies in the hands of a UK Government intent on taking a hard line on immigration.
Despite pressure, Prime Minister Theresa May has repeatedly ruled out the possibility of removing students from net migration numbers.
“We have to look at all sources of immigration if we mean business,” Home Secretary Amber Rudd told Conservative conference last year.
Indeed, yesterday also saw University and Colleges Union general secretary Sally Hunt tell MPs of the House of Commons education select committee that staff and students who have contributed to the UK’s success “deserve better than to be used as pawns” in negotiations about the UK’s future.
“We are not alone in raising concerns about the damage being caused by Brexit and the type of rhetoric being used by politicians on immigration. It is naive to believe that those comments do not make their way around the world or have any impact on how we are viewed abroad,” she said.
No wonder, then, Universities Scotland feels the need to send out more positive messages through its ‘Scotland welcomes the world’ campaign.
The convener of the body’s international committee, Heriot-Watt principal Professor Richard Williams said: “We are all delighted to shout out from our institutions why we’re proud to welcome the world. We understand we succeed only because we share in the experience of our international students and staff’s diversity. Our cultures, our wisdom.
“Scottish higher education has always been cosmopolitan, that’s part of our attraction. Internationalism is in the heartbeat of all world-class universities and institutions. It’s in the heartbeat of Scotland, and it will continue to be so.”
The sector’s international credentials are indeed longstanding. In an interview with Holyrood last year University of Glasgow principal Anton Muscatelli proudly told how his institution welcomed African American medical students when they were still excluded from many universities in their own country.
“We did not, unlike other universities in North America in the nineteenth century discriminate against race or creed. Universities in Scotland were open to anybody who had talent,” he said.
At last night’s Burns supper, Sturgeon pointed out the bard himself was an internationalist. “He had for example an intense interest in the revolutions in the United States and in France, and he wrote of the day when ‘man to man the world o’er shall brithers be, for a’ that’,” she said.
“Everyone is so nice,” said one student. “My Favourite country in the world,” said another. But there was an awareness, too, that difficulties with visa applications are likely to get worse. One member of Dundee University’s support staff, told Holyrood that proposed caps on visas by the UK Government would be “a disaster” for the students she worked with, and the impact of the loss of the post-study visa was being keenly felt.
What can the Scottish Government do? There have been assurances that EU-based students will continue to receive free tuition, including those starting this autumn. But applications for 2018 courses are already coming in, the prospectuses sent out around the world, and there have been some indications the uncertainty of what post-Brexit Britain might look like is already having an impact.
All that is left, then, is positive messages.
“In everything we do we want to emphasise one simple but hugely important point,” Sturgeon told the event.
“Not simply to EU students but to everyone who has come from outside Scotland to live, to study and to work here, to everyone who does us the honour – and it is an honour – of making Scotland, our country, your home. That message is this: All of you, you are welcome here in Scotland and you always will be.”
Welcome, clearly. But allowed to stay? That remains to be seen.