There are few subjects in politics that engender the overwhelming degree of consensus that the issue of post study work visas has done in Scotland.
Since the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government scrapped the post study work visa scheme in 2012 there has been growing pressure from Scotland’s business community, educational organisations, the Scottish Government and political parties to bring back a post study work scheme for Scotland so that we can reap the benefits that international students bring by remaining here to work once they graduate – filling the gaps in our country’s key professions.
It is a call that unites all of Scotland’s 25 publicly funded colleges, higher education institutions, Colleges Scotland, Universities Scotland, the business community, and all of Scotland’s main political parties – even the Scottish Conservatives.
In a report published last week, the cross-party House of Common’s Scottish Affairs Committee – of which I am a member – became the latest body to join the growing chorus of calls for the return of the visa, following a similar move by the Scottish Parliament’s Devolution Committee and pressure from the cross-party Post Study Work Steering Group.
It’s time for the UK government to finally listen. The reluctance of the government to act in replacing the scheme has been deeply disappointing – not to mention damaging to Scotland’s economy. There has been an almost universal call for change and Tory ministers must now give assurances that the government will take heed and give proper consideration to reforms.
The Tory-Lib Dem decision to scrap the visa was a ‘cut your nose off to spite your face’ policy. The move might have been designed to make the Tory government look ‘tough on immigration’ and win back votes from UKIP but the end result for the country has been – as the University of Edinburgh warned – a “brain drain of global talent” caused by top international talent being forced to move away from the UK after graduation despite the contribution they could otherwise make.
Taking away the post study visa has undoubtedly made Scotland less attractive to international students – with many struggling to find a job after graduating under the current visa arrangements, which require minimum salary thresholds and impose a maximum four-month timescale. While the UK government has so far been unable to provide specific figures for Scotland, we do know that there has been a drop of 80% in non-EU students remaining in the UK as a whole after graduation.
Many businesses also find it difficult to sponsor students given the hurdles they must meet under the current system, with arrangements that are bureaucratic, costly and time-consuming.
The present situation is bad for Scotland – it’s bad for our economy, bad for our society, and bad for families up and down the country as a result.
Being bound to the Tories’ ‘keep them out’ immigration culture is deeply damaging to Scotland’s higher education institutions, and our very different demographics and population trends suggest that we do need a different approach.
Scotland has been challenged by the UK Government to grow its population and use what is available within its powers to develop our working age population. A post study work scheme is an easy and convenient way for Westminster to assist with this without any cost to itself.
It cannot be right that we welcome international students to come to our country for three or four years to be educated, and then raise such unnecessary barriers that prevent these talented individuals from staying and contributing to our economy – it is a huge waste of an opportunity.
The UK government claims its priority is the economy, but without a post study work scheme we are at great risk of falling behind other nations and losing out on the talent and economic contribution of the brightest and best from around the world.
With cross party agreement in Scotland and a real desire to see a post study work scheme secured it is vital that the UK government listens to the evidence, proves its commitment to the economy and rethinks its opposition.
The message is clear: allow us to keep some of the international students that we educate to such a high standard and invite them to help us grow our economy. Westminster can’t have it both ways – if it is up to us to grow our population then Scotland should control the means to do just that.