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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 1, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 01 February 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, World Cancer Day, Business Motion, Support to Study in Scotland, Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill, Point of Order, Decision Time


Support to Study in Scotland

The next item of business is a statement by Shirley-Anne Somerville on supporting people to study in Scotland. The minister will take questions at the end.


Scotland is an outward-looking nation and this Government remains absolutely committed to our country continuing to be an open, welcoming and diverse nation. A key driver of that is the ethos and culture of our colleges and universities, which supports the cross-cultural exchange of ideas and opinions, knowledge and research, new social activities and greater understanding.

At the same time, the world-class reputation of our higher education sector, in particular, ensures that we remain a country where people want to come to work in our universities or to study. A diverse student population that is made up of people from Scotland, other countries in the United Kingdom, across the European Union and other parts of the world help to make that ethos a reality.

The recognised benefits of having EU and international students here include an enriched learning experience for and an international outlook among home students and graduates, and the development of an international network of alumni. Twenty-two per cent of our university enrolments are from EU and non-EU international students. They are and will remain an integral and valued part of our universities and our colleges.

There can be no doubt of the threat that is posed even by talk of a Brexit that results in the loss of freedom of movement. The latest Universities and Colleges Admissions Service figures show a 10 per cent reduction in acceptances of EU students to Scottish universities. The continued lack of clarity from the UK Government on freedom of movement and the immigration status of students in particular is frankly unacceptable. It ignores the fact that every potential student, and every student who is currently studying here in Scotland, is an individual who has costs, commitments, families, lives and alternatives available to them.

Since the EU referendum, we have been clear that we want prospective students from the EU to continue to see Scotland as a place where they wish to study and live and a place that they can call home. Previously, we confirmed that EU students starting their studies in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years will have the cost of their tuition fees met by the Scottish Government for the duration of their studies. Today, I announce that we will extend that commitment to the 2019-20 cohort, which means that all eligible non-UK EU citizens who come to Scotland to study for an undergraduate higher education qualification in 2019-20 will benefit from free tuition. That will provide confidence for prospective EU students who are considering coming to study in Scotland, as well as the clarity that our institutions require in order to plan for that academic year. We are the first Government in the UK to make such a commitment. We do so to send the strong message to current and prospective students that they are welcome here.

We will also continue to press the UK Government to clarify its position on Erasmus+ after the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Since 2014, more than 15,000 people have been involved in nearly 500 Erasmus+ projects across Scotland. The programme is evolving to include vocational education and training, adult education, schools education and youth work. We want to continue to participate in Erasmus+ and its successor programmes, ensuring that people from Scotland continue to have the valuable opportunity to experience living, studying and volunteering overseas, and welcoming others from across the EU to come to Scotland.

It is also important for us to continue to welcome people from other countries to study in Scotland. This Government supports our higher education sector’s efforts to promote Scotland to the wider world as a destination to study. Scotland’s saltire scholarships, which were introduced in 2009, are open to international students from selected countries outside the European Union. They have increased in popularity and reputation over the years. Indeed, competition for the scholarships has grown, with almost 4,000 applications received last year.

From surveying those students, we know that the saltire scholarships have confirmed people’s view that Scotland is a welcoming, open and attractive place to visit and study in. Discussions with previous participants and with institutions have also led to another evolution of the programme, with a stronger focus on developing a strong network of scholars and alumni to promote Scotland and its education system overseas. That is all the more necessary in light of the continued uncertainty that has been generated by the UK Government in relation to EU and international students.

For 2018-19 and beyond, 50 saltire scholars will be selected from academically gifted applicants from the Scottish Government’s priority countries of Canada, China, India, Pakistan and the US. They will study in areas such as science and technology; medicine and healthcare; the creative industries; and renewable energy. Further, they will add value to priority areas including science, technology, engineering and mathematics—STEM—digital skills, public services and the low-carbon economy.

We will also ensure that our new saltire scholars engage with our global Scots programme. They will meet a range of industry leaders while studying here and will be in a position to share that experience with others, wherever the future may take them. In return, we will double the value of the current scholarship from £4,000 to £8,000—an offer that has been made possible by the continuing partnership funding and support from universities.

We will also continue to support a range of schemes that offer short-term opportunities for international students to come to our colleges and universities and, indeed, for Scottish students to spend time overseas. Those include funding Scotland’s participation in the generation UK: China exchange programme; the UK-India education and research initiative; the UK-US Fulbright Commission programme; and the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience programme. Those programmes help to draw talented people from around the world to live and study in Scotland.

It is vital for the health of our economy and society that we are able to retain some of those talented people in Scotland and allow them to work here. The UK’s current post-study work offer is not adequate for Scotland, and the Home Office’s tier 4 pilot falls far short of the kind of post-study work route that Scotland needs. We will continue to press the UK Government to respect the cross-party consensus that exists in this Parliament and reinstate the post-study work visa at the earliest opportunity.

It is also important for us to offer assistance to the international students who need our support the most. Already, this Government supports students who have settled here from Iraq after having helped the armed forces as locally employed staff interpreters. Home Office rules provide them with indefinite leave to remain, and our regulations on financial support ensure that it is possible for them to afford to study for qualifications that might help them to succeed in their new lives here.

It is therefore inexplicable that the same opportunity to remain here indefinitely was denied to Afghan interpreters who undertook similar work. The fact that Afghan nationals who were previously locally employed staff are here on five years’ leave to remain, rather than indefinite leave to remain, has prevented them from being eligible for support to go to university without further adjustment to our scheme and arrangements for financial support. That is not fair or equitable and today I am putting that right. Action will be taken to open up student support to Afghan interpreters, so that eligible Afghan students can apply for tuition-fee and living-cost support so that they can undertake courses of further and higher education at our colleges and universities. That recognises the contribution that they have made in their service to the UK and to armed forces that are deployed to Afghanistan from communities all around Scotland, and it also opens up opportunities for them to continue their education in order to provide them with the qualifications and skills that they need to move on in life.

The risks of leaving the EU are increasingly significant and are becoming more real. We should not forget that people in Scotland voted decisively to remain in the EU. All the available information and analysis shows that doing so remains the best option for Scotland and indeed, the UK as a whole. However, we must prepare for an outcome that none of us want. In doing so, we must not allow our distinct voice, our international reputation and our excellence in education to diminish. Whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, we must send a clear signal not only to people who are already studying here but to potential students from the EU and further afield. Further, we must continue to provide opportunities for our own students so that they might benefit from the experience of studying and living abroad.

By our words and by our actions, we can show the world that we remain an open nation that values diversity, and that we are a welcoming country. Indeed, as the Universities Scotland campaign summed up so succinctly, Scotland welcomes the world.

I thank the minister for prior sight of the statement. I welcome the early confirmation of the financial status of EU students at Scottish universities for academic year 2019-20, which I know will be welcomed by the universities, as they plan ahead.

I associate myself with the minister’s remark that it is important to send out a strong message to current and prospective students that Scotland is a good place to be. All MSPs are aware of the outstanding contribution that EU students and staff make to our universities. They are often at the cutting edge of research and development, which are so important to the future of the economy.

What discussions is the Scottish Government having with Universities Scotland and Derek Mackay’s office about the long-term sustainability of higher education funding in Scotland, given the warnings that were issued to the Scottish Government by Audit Scotland in its most recent report?

What actions is the Government taking to expand the bursary support for poorer students, which still, despite some modest improvements in the past two years, lags behind the support in other parts of the UK?

I welcome Liz Smith’s remarks and associate myself with her addition of EU staff. Our international staff—academics from across the world—are one reason why our universities are world-renowned, and we should be equally proud of every one of them.

Liz Smith will be well aware that the budget for, and overall investment in, the higher education sector will increase by 1.9 per cent in real terms next year. Despite the difficult financial settlement that the Scottish Government has had to deal with, we have provided a real-terms ongoing increase for the sector. That settlement was welcomed by Universities Scotland when Mr Mackay produced the draft budget. We take very seriously the requirements of the sector and we are delivering for it by providing it with more than £1 billion a year in public funding.

Liz Smith spoke about the importance of support for poorer students who require it. I point out that our independent review of student support recently made a number of recommendations to the Government, on which I will report in due course. Some recommendations are very radical, especially where they relate to the higher education sector and, particularly, the further education sector and the impact of any change that we might make on students’ ability to receive social security benefits. That is why some measures that the review has asked the Government to look at will require us to work with the UK Government to see what their implications would be.

Liz Smith can be assured that I have asked my officials to ensure that everything that we do is based on the students who find it most difficult to go to university because of their financial situation. They are at the forefront of our thoughts and we will base our deliberations on them.

I thank the minister for early sight of her statement. All the measures that are contained in the statement are welcome as far as we are concerned, particularly the early indication of support for EU students in academic year 2019-20 in good time for applications, which Liz Smith mentioned. On a previous occasion, that early indication did not happen, which caused difficulty for universities and potential students. In this case, EU citizens who are thinking of applying to study in Scotland in academic year 2019-20 will know what support will be available to them, which is important.

However, as the minister’s previous answer implied, Scotland-domiciled people who are thinking of applying to study in university or college beginning next year do not know what support for living will be available for them because the Scottish Government has not yet responded to the review of support for students. That cannot be right. Does the minister accept that simply to say that she will respond “in due course” is not good enough? Will she tell us when she intends to respond and what support will be available in 2019-20?

With the greatest respect to Iain Gray, I say that students do know what will be available because it is on the SAAS website. They know exactly what they will receive for their student support because the system is in place now: it is not a mystery to anyone who is considering applying. Officials from SAAS are going into schools around the country and talking about what is available to students.

We will consider the longer-term challenges. If I were to have immediately accepted the review of student support and then, having had discussions with the Department for Work and Pensions, was to find out that students would lose their social security benefits, having provided them with more money through the FE budget, Iain Gray would rightly think that that action was a bit misinformed.

I will take my time; I will ensure that my officials have enough time to discuss the matter with the DWP and that I can discuss it with ministers down south to ensure that any changes that we make will not be disincentives to study. Iain Gray might want us to rush ahead, but we will continue, with stakeholders and the National Union of Students, to look very seriously at every piece of evidence that they have produced, and we will rise to the challenge that the review has set us.

I thank the minister for her positive statement. I am sure that many people are glad to have heard what she said. Will she confirm that she will press the UK Government to follow her example on EU tuition fees, given that the risks that are associated with Brexit around EU students and clarity for our institutions are entirely of the Tories’ making?

James Dornan raises an important point about not only the signals that the Government has given in the announcements that we are making today but the signals that need to come from the UK Government. As I said in my statement, we are the first Government in the UK to discuss what is happening in respect of 2019-20 students.

The deadline is very important. The signals that are coming from the UK Government and its actions are also important, because students who enter a four-year degree in the academic year 2019-20 will graduate in 2023. The Tories argue among themselves about what transition means, but those students will be leaving university way after the transition period, so they need to know not only what will happen during transition but after it.

We have today set out our positive case for why students should come to Scotland. I encourage the UK Government to decide not only what transition means in general, but what it means for students and, importantly, what will happen afterwards to ensure that we have freedom of movement and can encourage students to stay not only for their courses but after them.

I join colleagues in welcoming the clarity that today’s statement brings. However, there is well-documented pressure on funded places in Scotland and a number of Scottish young people are missing out on their preferred university choices. Will the minister explain what the statement means for them?

I am sure that Oliver Mundell is aware that a record number of Scottish applicants were accepted for university: there was an increase of 3 per cent. There is also a record number of 18-year-olds from the most-deprived communities going to university. We are seeing encouraging signs of widening access in our system, but that widening does not go far enough, which is why the Government continues to encourage universities to pick up the pace of change on widening access. The Government is delivering not only for EU students, but for our Scotland-domiciled students.

I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.

Will the minister outline what discussions she has had with the UK Government regarding the future of the Erasmus+ programme after the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and how she plans to continue to put pressure on it to ensure that those vital international exchanges are not lost thanks to the reckless actions of the UK Tory Government?

As I mentioned in my statement, Erasmus+ is exceptionally important not just for our universities but for those in youth groups, schools and adult education who also see the benefits of the programme. Indeed, it is probably more valuable for some of those individuals who might not have an opportunity for international mobility if it were not for the schemes run under Erasmus+.

We hear warm words from the UK Government about the importance of Erasmus+ but, until we have some clarity on freedom of movement and what will happen to our citizens and other citizens from across Europe and how they will be encouraged to live and work here, individuals will still experience doubt when making decisions about whether to study here or elsewhere.

I will continue to raise my concerns with the UK Government—as will other ministers—about the fact that we need an early sign of definitive UK policy. I will raise the issue with the newly appointed UK Minister for Higher Education when we meet.

I welcome today’s announcement by the minister of the Government’s intention to support Afghan interpreters—who risked their lives in their home country to assist our armed forces—to study in Scotland. Can the minister give us any indication of how many Afghan students the extension of support will apply to? What analysis has been done of the costs? What educational and financial assistance will be provided to members of Afghan interpreters’ families who were born outwith Scotland?

I thank the member for her encouragement in respect of the change that we have made. It is all about fairness in our education system and enabling Afghan interpreters to have the chance to go to college or university. It is important that we support those individuals during that process. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has shown that there are currently 313 Afghan nationals under the interpreters scheme living in five local authorities in Scotland, with a potential further cohort to be settled in Glasgow and Inverclyde. That is a rough approximation of the number of individuals that we are talking about. The difference that the scheme will make to each individual’s life is incalculable. I would be delighted if some of those 313 Afghan nationals were able to take part in our college and university courses and take full advantage of campus life.

I, too, welcome the Government’s continued support for the Erasmus+ programme. As has been mentioned, it is of huge benefit to young people in Scotland—not just those in university, but those from a variety of backgrounds across Scotland. Is the Government exploring options for continued Scottish participation in Erasmus+ in some way, in the absence of any UK-wide participation post-Brexit? I accept that it would very much depend on the wider terms of the Brexit settlement.

Mr Greer’s last point is an important one. The Scottish Government, along with stakeholders in Scotland, will do everything we can to explore what can be done within the powers of the Scottish Parliament. That is the simplest and most obvious answer, and what would work best for Scotland would be our continuing in Erasmus+. However, that all depends on freedom of movement and many issues that are much wider than education. In many ways, that is what is hindering progress.

To be fair, Jo Johnson, my UK counterpart prior to the latest Cabinet reshuffle, understood the importance of Erasmus+, too. It was getting into the wider morass of Tory Government policies on freedom of movement and welcoming students here that prevented him from doing what he wanted to do. I hope that we will be able to get some movement on freedom of movement and encouraging students to come here, whether that is for Erasmus+ or for their entire degree.

I agree with the Government’s proposals to support students from neighbouring EU countries in the 2019-20 academic year and for their period of study. Will the minister set out the likely costs of that proposal, given the situation in previous and current financial years? Does the minister agree that it is important to take students out of the UK immigration figures? Students are part of our and Europe’s future, and the last thing that they should be part of is a political battle over Brexit.

As Tavish Scott is well aware, the number of funded places in Scotland is determined in relation to Scotland-domiciled and EU students, so the costs are based on the number of funded places every year. It is important that we encourage Scotland-domiciled students to continue to apply to university, and it is exceptionally important that we continue to encourage EU nationals not just to apply but to take up their places in our universities, as there has unfortunately been a decrease in the number of places taken up by EU nationals, as I said in my statement.

I very much welcome the minister’s announcement and, in particular, what she said about Afghan interpreters. I have worked with Afghans in my constituency, and I thank Mohammad Asif and others for their help in getting justice for the Afghan interpreters who helped our armed forces but have been denied the right to come here to learn.

Will the minister say when she intends to lay the regulations that will enable Afghan interpreters to go on to further education? Does she agree that it is absurd, unfair and unjust that UK Government rules prevent people such as Afghan interpreters from coming here to further their education?

I commend the work that Sandra White has been doing with Afghan interpreters in her constituency and elsewhere in Glasgow to bring the issue to my attention. I am delighted to say that regulations will be laid shortly and are due to come into force for the start of the 2018-19 academic year.

It is important that we pay tribute to the work of Afghan interpreters. The way in which we can do that within the powers of the Scottish Parliament is by encouraging those people to play a full part in life in Scotland, including in our further and higher education institutions.

Given that the minister recognises the value of Erasmus+ and the need for further dialogue on the programme’s future, and given her announcement on tuition costs, will she at least welcome the UK Government’s assurance that successful bids to the Erasmus+ programme that are submitted while the UK is still a member state of the EU will be guaranteed, even if they are not approved until after we leave the EU and/or payments continue after we have left?

I welcome any announcement from the UK Government that gives clarity on what will happen before we leave the EU, during the transition period or after the transition period.

However, the UK Government’s announcements simply have not gone far enough. As I said in my statement, we are talking about individuals who have to make life choices. I talked about the timescale for those individuals: they will be leaving university after Brexit and after the transition period, and they have no idea what their immigration status will be. They do not know whether they will be welcome to stay here.

I welcome the UK Government’s deliberations on Erasmus+, but the UK Government needs to clarify what will happen to students and EU nationals more widely in Scotland. Until then, it is too little—and I fear it might be too late for some.

The moves that have been announced go a long way towards reversing some of the damage that has been inflicted on the Scottish economy by the UK Government’s cutting of the post-study work visa. Does the minister agree that it is absurd that the visa has still not been restored to Scotland?

Yes, I do. The need for the post-study work visa is something on which we have cross-party consensus in the Parliament. There is also consensus on the importance of encouraging international students to come here. It is unfortunate that the policy on EU and international students is based more on immigration ideology than on evidence.

I apologise to Tavish Scott, as I should have picked up on the second part of his question, which was about the importance of not including students in immigration statistics. That is a decision for the UK Government and it needs to be based on evidence. Unfortunately, the UK Government’s restrictions on international students and the ending of the post-study work visa were based on an inflated estimate of the number of students who were supposedly abusing the system every year, which was said to be almost 100,000. When the UK Government got round to counting the numbers properly, it found that fewer than 5,000 students overstayed their visa last year.

Those rules are based on ideology and not on evidence. The Prime Minister was the Home Secretary when those discussions took place, and it is disappointing that her position is still that international students should be included in the immigration figures. That bears no relation to the evidence, and I hope that it is one issue on which the Prime Minister will change her mind.

That is the end of our 20 minutes, but, if members can be concise, we can get the last two questions in.

The doubling of the value of the saltire scholarship is welcome, but it would seem to be at the expense of the number of scholarships. My understanding is that the number of scholarships was 100 last year and that it has fallen to 50 this year. Will the minister outline the rationale for the fall?

As I said in my statement, one of the issues that was raised in our discussions with previous scholars and with institutions was that we needed to do more to build up a meaningful alumni programme at the end of the scholarship. Having 50 scholarships allows us to have activities while students are in Scotland that are large enough to sustain that work. We want to do more than just get 100 people here; we want people who come here to be fully immersed in what our universities and industry more widely are all about and then to sustain that relationship once they leave. The changes to the system have been based on our discussions with individuals and institutions about what more we could do to support students once their studies are finished.

Further to the minister’s answer to my colleague Kate Forbes regarding the post-study work visa, does she agree that the best way to solve these issues would be to have immigration powers devolved to this Parliament?

Yes, I do. It is a very important issue and one that we need to look at. All Government ministers seek to solve problems when they arise. Unfortunately, when it comes to our encouraging EU and international students, we are doing it with one hand tied behind our back. I spoke about the restrictions that are being placed on international students and the UK Government’s obsession with counting international students in the immigration figures. That bears no relation to the evidence and is damaging to our economy. The quicker that we can have those powers here in the Scottish Parliament and take the right decisions for the economy in Scotland, the better.