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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 04 October 2016

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Draft Budget 2017-18 (Timetable), Higher Education and Further Education (European Union Referendum), Business Motion, Decision Time, Hate Crimes against Polish Migrants


Higher Education and Further Education (European Union Referendum)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-01792, in the name of Shirley-Anne Somerville, on the implications of the European Union referendum for higher and further education.


The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

I welcome the opportunity to open this afternoon’s debate.

The people of Scotland gave a strong and unequivocal vote to remain in the European Union. I believe that that is a result of Scotland recognising the social, economic and cultural benefits of EU membership for individuals, businesses and communities. Those benefits include benefits for the staff and students who study and work at the universities and colleges across Scotland.

Parliament will be well familiar by now with the five key interests that the First Minister set out following the referendum outcome and which are relevant to today’s debate: democracy, economic prosperity, social protection, solidarity and influence. Given Scotland’s unequivocal support for remaining in the EU, the First Minister secured a mandate from the Scottish Parliament to explore options to protect Scotland’s relationship with the EU and to maintain membership of the single market and freedom of movement.

Since then, the Scottish ministers have engaged closely with our counterparts in the United Kingdom and across the EU to ensure that all options are kept on the table. We have established a standing council on Europe, led by the principal of the University of Glasgow, Professor Anton Muscatelli, to advise the Scottish Government on securing Scotland’s relationship with Europe, and I welcome the council’s prioritisation of universities and colleges as an early topic for consideration.

In the days immediately following the referendum, I personally made contact with most of our university principals, Universities Scotland and the National Union of Students Scotland to listen to their views. I have followed that up with further discussions with principals, staff and students during my visits to college and university campuses over the past few months. Indeed, I visited the University of Dundee this very morning. I add that I am grateful to our chief scientific adviser, Professor Sheila Rowan, for the role that she has been playing in reaching out to the sector in a number of ways. She was in Brussels only last week to meet key stakeholders.

I would like to highlight three issues that I believe are greatly affecting the sector: the public, funding and influence.

Everyone to whom I have spoken has raised the issue of the impact of the EU referendum on students and staff, and that reflects my own concerns about the free movement of staff and students across Europe, as well as the attractiveness of our universities and colleges to staff and students from the rest of Europe.

We have a world-class further and higher education system; indeed, only last month, Times Higher Education confirmed that Scotland has five universities in the global top 200. That quality, underpinned by freedom of movement, has attracted the brightest and the best students from across Europe to study here and to make Scotland their home, and that has acted as a catalyst, reinforcing the quality and the reputation of our sector and supporting Scotland’s influence as well as collaboration across Europe.

Latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency suggest that almost 21,000—or nearly 9 per cent—of our university students are from the rest of the EU. Students from across the EU and beyond add to the diversity of our communities and campuses, enrich the learning experience for all, and support local businesses and jobs. The Scottish Government greatly values their contribution, which is why it moved quickly after the referendum to reassure EU students that there has been no change to the current funding arrangements. In June, we confirmed that eligible EU students who are studying in Scotland, including those who start this year, will continue to benefit from free tuition for the remainder of their course.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

The news on the funding status of students from the rest of the EU who are starting in 2016 is much welcomed, but we have already seen in evidence to the Education and Skills Committee concerns raised about the effect on potential students starting courses in 2017. Will the Scottish Government confirm that funding arrangements for those students will stay the same as they were this year?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I fully appreciate the point that Ross Greer makes. Staff and students in universities have made the same point to me when I have visited them, and they continue to do so.

We are actively considering the contribution that we can make to moving forward the debate on that. We are looking at the 2017-18 cohort. I fully appreciate the concerns that the universities have about that.

I am very proud that our universities are a destination of choice for staff and students from not just the EU, but across the globe. My ministerial colleagues have urged the UK Government to clarify at the earliest possible opportunity the immigration status of EU nationals who will be living in Britain once the UK formally leaves the EU.

I welcome the consensus in Scotland that we need to return to providing a post-study route to allow talented students to remain and contribute to the Scottish economy. The outcome of the EU referendum makes that more critical. I was therefore disappointed to see that the UK Government pilot scheme on post-study work visas applied to only four institutions in England, and I am greatly concerned by reports from the Conservative Party conference this afternoon about Amber Rudd’s placing of further restrictions on the number of international students who can come to Scotland and the UK.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

The minister knows that I agree with much of what she has said about post-study work visas, but there has been some indication that there will be a consultation on them. That is a welcome step forward.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It would be absolutely fantastic to have a consultation; and it would have been really good to have had the consultation before the four institutions in England were chosen, so that we could have taken part in the scheme. If the UK Government would like to take a step back and consult, that would be very welcome. We must be missing the letter in the mail that suggests that we could contribute with the four institutions that are currently taking part in the scheme.

Socrates or Erasmus exchanges for university students in Europe began almost 30 years ago. A recent impact study identified a range of benefits for Erasmus students, particularly around employability skills and levels of employment. Universities in Scotland are highly desirable destinations for Erasmus+ students from the rest of the EU. In 2014, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow were the top two universities in the whole of the UK for the number of Erasmus+ students. Retaining freedom of movement is a critical requirement for participation in Erasmus+.

Freedom of movement is important not only to students; it supports researchers’ collaborations and careers. Scotland has always looked beyond its own borders to the rest of the UK, Europe and beyond. Science and research are, by their very nature, international endeavours and have no respect for borders. Our universities and research institutions in Scotland are active and valued partners in a large number of research collaborations, many of which are underpinned by EU funding. I want to ensure that that continues.

Research collaboration is strongly linked to the second broad area that I wish to touch on, which is EU funding. EU funding benefits Scotland significantly by supporting jobs; delivering infrastructure; sustaining rural communities; and providing valuable support for the farming and fishing industries, businesses and—most relevant to this afternoon’s debate—our universities and colleges.

Over the past three decades, EU funding has become intertwined with the fabric of overall funding for education and employability. It has helped to deliver high-quality college courses that benefit students, society and our economy. Funding has also significantly contributed to the modernisation of our college estates to ensure that we have the state-of-the art facilities that learners need.

The Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council has estimated that, in academic year 2015-16 alone, £11.6 million of European funding was made available to the college sector, supporting upskilling, the development of young people’s employability and student support. Together with funding from the Scottish funding council, that is estimated to support around 4,200 full-time equivalent college places. The potential loss of that EU funding in future would deal a serious blow to the levels of activity that colleges can deliver.

EU funding acts as an enabler of international collaboration to drive up the quality of our research and to encourage innovation. Horizon 2020, which was launched in 2014, is the EU’s main programme for funding research and innovation projects. Our universities are highly successful in securing funding from horizon 2020, attracting €185 million up to July this year. It has also been a major source of funding for our research institutes, which have been awarded an additional €18 million until the same date.

I welcome Commissioner Moedas’s confirmation that the UK remains fully eligible for horizon 2020 funding and that

“projects will continue to be evaluated based on merit and not on nationality.”

However, I am concerned to hear anecdotal evidence suggesting that the outcome of the EU referendum may already be having an impact on research collaborations. Within weeks of the referendum, Professor Sir Ian Diamond gave evidence to a House of Commons committee. He said:

“some researchers involved in European partnerships have already received word from their partners that they think it is better that the University of Aberdeen does not lead in the future.”

In the weeks following the referendum, I took action to agree a joint statement with Universities Scotland. Our published statement sets out our commitment to

“work together using our collective influence in Brussels and elsewhere to ensure that it is well understood that universities in Scotland remain committed to collaborating with our European partners and to attracting the best international talent.”

I welcome the UK Government’s guarantee on European funding, including horizon 2020, as far as it goes. However, the guarantee fails to take account of the impact of uncertainty on potential collaborations, as Professor Sir Ian Diamond highlighted, and it does not take account of the longer-term funding and other benefits that we otherwise would have received through continuing membership of the EU—for example, through future framework programmes. I firmly believe that the best way to guarantee European funding is by maintaining our relationship with the EU.

I will touch briefly on a third and final issue: our potential loss of influence in Europe. The challenges of having to comply with rules and regulations that are developed in Europe while not having a seat at the table are well documented. I believe that the same is true for the development of future funding programmes and policy direction in research and innovation. Should we leave the EU, Scotland would have no role in influencing or shaping European priorities.

Of course, there are some countries outwith the EU that benefit from EU funding, but they have no way of influencing EU priorities directly. Over the past decade, only 7 per cent of research money that is allocated by the EU and the European Research Council has gone to non-member states.

I am deeply concerned about the risk, to which the First Minister has referred, of

“a lost decade of uncertainty and turmoil”.

Scotland is, and always has been, an outward-looking nation. One of the key features of the Scottish enlightenment was its openness and commitment to share, spread and challenge ideas and norms. At a time when we find ourselves in such uncharted territory, it is good to remember those principles in thinking about how we chart a course for Scotland’s future relationship with the EU.

We are at the start of that process, but I strongly believe that we must work creatively, positively and constructively, feeding into negotiations to agree a way forward and to shape a future that reflects and respects the interests of our existing and future staff and students. In that spirit, I urge all members to support the motion in my name.

I move,

That the Parliament recognises the benefits of EU membership to Scotland and that Scotland’s interests are best served by protecting Scotland’s existing relationship in Europe, maintaining membership of the single market and access to the free movement of labour; welcomes the Scottish Government’s reassurance on the tuition fee status of continuing EU students and those beginning an undergraduate course in 2016; acknowledges Scotland’s success to date in securing EU funding and recognises the benefits that this brings to Scottish universities and colleges; notes that the outcome of the EU referendum potentially makes it harder to attract EU students to study in Scotland, to maintain opportunities for Scottish students and academics in Europe and to collaborate across Europe; resolves to promote Scotland’s willingness to continue to collaborate with European partners and to attract the best international talent to maintain the world-class reputation of Scottish universities and colleges, and calls on the UK Government to ensure that Scotland has a role in decision-making, as well as full involvement in all negotiations between the UK Government and the EU, to protect the interests of staff and students in Scotland’s universities and colleges.


Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I want to be very clear at the start of my speech that further and higher education institutions in Scotland and, indeed, the UK are world class in terms of the quality of their teaching, their research and their efficiency. I also want to be clear that being part of the European Union has played a major role in that. I am sure that my colleagues will provide lots of evidence of that.

We should be in no doubt that what has made our colleges and universities great—over many centuries, in the case of universities—is their outward-looking approach. They have been pioneers in so many respects because they have been at the cutting edge of intellectual thought, invention, innovation and, in modern times, knowledge exchange, which is now so much a part of the important things that they do.

As we ponder the effects of Brexit, we should be in no doubt about the extent of the EU funding that has supported projects, but nor should we be in any doubt about the adaptability that our institutions have shown throughout their development and their ability to meet head on what seem like relentless challenges and attract new streams of funding. They will need all that imagination and creativity like never before. They will also need resilience, because it is not going to be an easy time.

Let me set out some things that are essential if the Brexit process is to be made more smooth. I will speak first about some interesting things that John Kemp, the interim chair of the Scottish funding council, and Professor Andrea Nolan, chairman of Universities Scotland, said when they were at the Education and Skills Committee just three weeks ago. They said that although definitive evidence is only in the process of being compiled, there are already cases in which the Scottish or UK lead in a research project is being downgraded from that position because there is now uncertainty about the financial sustainability of the project if some EU funding is lost. Indeed, I note the comment from the vice-chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University that he thought four out of 12 current projects are now under threat. If that tendency grows, or if the money is not replaced by other funds, there could clearly be serious detrimental effects.

Research money is not just the odd investment here and there. It is a sizeable amount and is therefore significant in terms of what a university and its collaborative partners can or cannot achieve. In that respect, the UK Higher Education Research Bill is crucial, and I thank the convener of the Education and Skills Committee—I do not think that he is in the chamber just now—for being prepared to bring some evidence to the committee.

The message must be that leaving the EU does not mean leaving Europe or, I hope, becoming any less European in our educational ambitions. Happily, there has been extensive growth in the number of collaborative projects with nations outwith the EU, most especially China, India, Canada, Australia and America. Such collaborative experiences must be worked on like never before, and in doing so we must make sure that we are as attractive as possible to students and staff from those nations.

The first thing that will help is the message that Government sends out—including the Westminster Government’s message about its approach to immigration. Members know that, prior to the Brexit vote, I had disagreements with my Westminster colleagues about the post-study work visa. Although I fully understand the practical failures within the previous system, which opened up too many loopholes in the immigration system, I firmly believe that a new post-study work visa can work, and work well, to the advantage of Scottish institutions and our economy. We have some of the best brains among the foreign nationals who are helping us with cutting-edge research to which millions of pounds of investment is attached. It cannot be right that, halfway through a project, they find that they must go home. If the universities of Bath, Cambridge and Oxford and Imperial College London can be permitted to run a pilot PSWV, so should universities in Scotland. I remain hopeful that we will get somewhere on that, and I was pleased to hear about the consultation process at the Conservative Party conference.

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

I wonder whether Liz Smith would like to reflect on something else that came from the Conservative Party conference: the Prime Minister’s remark that clinicians in our national health service from other countries will be welcome to stay in this country until such time as we have grown our own replacements for them. Does Liz Smith accept that that is a terribly bad signal to send clinicians who will be part of the self-same research process that she has commended and which I value enormously? Does that proposal not cause enormous uncertainty for the decisions that will be made by clinicians about where in the globe they choose to locate to in advancing their specialisms?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I can allow Liz Smith some extra time for that intervention.

Liz Smith

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I agree with the cabinet secretary, up to a point. We need certainty and we need the message to be absolutely correct. However, it is also important to give full clarity about how we will ensure that the best brains—domestic or foreign nationals—can be part of not only this country’s institutions, which we value so highly, but our economic future. The Prime Minister said in her Marr interview on Sunday—and the point was repeated twice in speeches at conference—that there is a real determination to make sure that the two match up. I suggest to the Scottish National Party that there is some light at the end of the tunnel with the consultation process. I am clear that we did not have that before, so some things are moving in the right direction.

I believe very firmly that when it comes to the crucial funding streams that are attached to higher education and college education there is an opportunity for us to reset some of the issues.

Perhaps, in Mr Russell’s case, there is a bit of a silver lining in all this. I remember an education question time in the Parliament some six years ago when my late colleague, David McLetchie, asked Mr Russell, then the cabinet secretary, how he would resolve the issue of the inherent unfairness of the Scottish Government paying EU students’ fees when rest of the UK and international students who were studying the exact same courses had to pay their own fees.

Mr Russell said then, and several times thereafter, that he was working on ways to get round the problem. Of course, he should have said that there was no way round the problem because of EU law. With Brexit, that problem will be removed; what will not be removed are the funding issues for those EU students. Will they be liable for fees in the same way as rest of the UK and international students, assuming of course that the SNP clings to its policy of allowing Scotland-domiciled students to go for free? What arithmetic is the SNP doing to assess whether the payment of fees by EU students in the future will lead to a possible fall in demand for places and, if it does, by how much? An awful lot of arithmetic has to be done to ensure that we get the background to that.

Where the Westminster Government has responsibilities, so too does the Scottish Government. As Ross Greer pointed out to the minister, it is very important that certainty can be given not just to students who are on courses just now but to students who are applying to join courses in the near future. That point was put very strongly at the Education and Skills Committee and the Scottish Government is responsible for ensuring that there is that certainty.

Let me be very clear. The Scottish Government continues to lambast the Westminster Government for its actions, but the Scottish Government is responsible for higher education in Scotland and for its funding. Brexit might not be what FE and HE wanted, but it provides the Scottish Government with a way of realigning its funding policy and building a new one that is based on what we would see as greater fairness.

The mantra that the SNP consistently uses—it is built into the rocks and the sun carving at Heriot-Watt University—is to claim that access to higher education is based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. That might work well for a Scotland-domiciled student but it has never really been true for a rest of the UK or international student.

Mr Russell knows more than most what needs to happen in higher education to bring in additional income so that our institutions remain wholly competitive on the international stage, not just the European stage. If he really wants to do something about that, we need to hear what it is.

We know from every briefing that the colleges and universities have given us that the Brexit problem is serious. However, on this side of the chamber, we have faith that the challenge can be met head on with the same resourcefulness and pioneering spirit for which our institutions are world renowned, and with good-quality negotiations between the Scottish Government and the Westminster Government.

I move amendment S5M-01792.1, to leave out from first “the benefits” to end and insert:

“that Brexit represents a significant change for both further and higher education, and that, alongside challenges, there will be new opportunities for both colleges and universities, especially in developing closer international links with further and higher education institutions in non-EU nations with which Scottish colleges and universities already have expanding collaboration, research projects and knowledge exchange; pays tribute to the resourcefulness and creativity with which further and higher education institutions have always reacted to changing circumstances both at home and abroad; welcomes the existing commitments by the UK Government on EU-funding streams, and calls on the Scottish and UK governments to work together in a constructive manner to support higher and further education in Scotland”.


Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

We recently celebrated the news that five of our universities continue to be rated in the top 200 in the whole world—an astonishing achievement for a country our size.

Only last week in this Parliament, Scotland’s colleges showcased their remarkable innovation and excellence across the broadest range of skills and technology imaginable.

Our universities support the learning of more than 230,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students and contribute an annual economic impact of more than £7 billion gross value added. As a driver of the economy, they come behind only the financial services and energy sectors. We should not forget—as I think the minister rather did—that colleges, in spite of swingeing cuts, continue to deliver 20 per cent of higher education and contribute £6 to the economy for every £1 invested. If we are to prosper in the future, that must only increase, for our future lies in high-tech, highly skilled jobs in industries that are driven by training, research and innovation from our universities and colleges, underpinned by knowledge and new thinking. In a globalised world, there is no other path that we can take.

How worrying, then, is the situation in which we find ourselves? Brexit poses nothing but difficulties, challenges, uncertainty and potential pitfalls for higher and further education, which is why we will oppose the Tory amendment at decision time tonight. Its Pollyanna formulation—that Brexit brings opportunities as well as challenges—attempts simply to elide responsibility for the unnecessary risk that the Tories have created for our universities and colleges through their Brexit fiasco. For today’s debate, we have had briefings from universities, collectively and individually, Colleges Scotland, the National Union of Students, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Institute of Physics, but not one has a good word to say about Brexit—not one. They are concerned, worried and uncertain, and the Tories’ rather hopeful claims of opportunity have completely passed them by.

First, there is the issue of students. We have 13,500 non-UK EU students—almost 9 per cent of undergraduates—in our universities. They not only enrich our universities’ student body but currently can stay and work here when they qualify, which helps us to meet the demand for the highest of skills and the most imaginative of innovation. As has been mentioned, the Scottish Government has at least been able to provide those students who are already here with the assurance that their fees will be met for the duration of their course but, as has also been noted, no such assurance has been given for next year’s entrants, who are now applying. Universities have had to publish prospectuses and seek students while unable to tell them whether their fees will be paid. I know that that situation is not of the Scottish Government’s making, and I acknowledge that, as the minister said, she reached out quickly to the higher education sector. However, in the end, that really is not good enough. Universities have been left in an impossible position. Application closing dates are imminent or, in some cases, even past, so the Government must decide and decide soon.

Then we have university and college staff. Academia is one of the sectors that have relished the free movement of people, which goes with the grain of centuries of intellectual exchange. Around 16 per cent of our universities’ staff are from the EU. That is more than 4,500 people who now face uncertainty about their long-term future. They need assurances from the UK Government now, and not just for the next few months or couple of years, because otherwise they will consider leaving. It is not just the formality of their immigration status that matters; their sense of being valued and wanted has been badly shaken.

Then there is research. In 2013-14, almost £90 million of research funding, which was 13 per cent of Scottish universities’ total funding, came from European Union sources. The Prime Minister has given assurances that research funding will not suffer, but there is no detail and, frankly, there is not much confidence in the sector. That applies not just to the universities but to companies such as Sunamp in my constituency, which does world-leading research and development in renewable heat. Its work is driven by innovative chemistry from the University of Edinburgh and it looks to horizon 2020 for next-stage development. As the minister said, £165 million of horizon 2020 funding has already been won in Scotland, but what will replace that in future? Even if those funds are underwritten in the short term, in the long term, how do we replace access to an €80 billion fund to support research?

Once again, the issue is about people and not just money. As Liz Smith illustrated, we are already hearing about research collaborations thinking twice about UK partners, certainly as project leaders if not as participants, because they are now unsure of our dependability and commitment to partnership.

All that is true of the college sector, too. There are 3,500 student places dependent on European social fund funding of £13 million per year, which is a significant contribution to the sector. Although it is true that fewer EU citizens come to Scotland to study in our colleges than come to study in our universities—there are hundreds rather than thousands—it is also true that thousands of students in our colleges are EU citizens who already live here and have chosen to access further education to pursue their careers. They are now unsure of how long they will be able to do that, what their status will be or whether they are welcome.

I close with a comment on an EU programme—Erasmus, the European exchange programme, which the cabinet secretary rightly mentioned. I hope that we can maintain Scotland’s place in Erasmus, because it epitomises the internationalism that has underpinned our universities and colleges for centuries.

I am reminded of the example of John Mair, who was from North Berwick in my constituency. He was schooled at Haddington grammar in my home town and was a student alongside Erasmus at the Collège de Montaigu in France. He graduated in Navarre in Spain, taught at the Sorbonne and then returned to Scotland as principal of the University of Glasgow, before moving to St Andrews. He was the originator of the idea of the union between Scotland and England, and of the fundamental principles that underlie human rights law. Mair is an example who epitomises the internationalism of Scottish education: a historic strength that pre-dated the EU but which sat so well with it—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Come to a close, please.

Iain Gray

—and which we must now find ways to ensure survives the threat of Brexit.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move to the open debate.


Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

Scotland did not vote to leave the EU. We voted to remain. Scotland continually punches above its weight in research, which ensures access to competitive research funding. Scotland is a country that needs to grow its population to help address skills gaps and deal with an ageing population, which is why free movement of people is crucial. All that is now at risk, and it will be people who pay the price in real life if jobs, investment and education suffer as a result.

In July, a joint statement from the Scottish Government and Universities Scotland reassured EU students in Scotland that they will continue to benefit from free tuition and associated support for the duration of their course. I very much welcomed that statement, which sent a clear message that EU students are welcome in Scotland and that their contribution is valued. We welcome all international students who choose to study at Scottish higher education institutions.

The number of EU international students at Scottish higher education institutions is a testament to our world-class university sector—five of our universities are in the top 200 in the world. Scotland is home to nearly 13,500 EU undergraduate students and nearly 5,400 postgraduate students, and we have 4,600 EU staff working in our higher education institutions. In anybody’s language, that is a valuable economic, social and educational learning contribution to Scotland. It is good for Scotland, and indeed for the wider UK, for international students to be here and then go back to their country, become leaders and remember fondly their time in Scotland.

Skills shortages are a particular issue for Scotland. More jobs are hard to fill here because of skills shortages than in any other part of the UK. A report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills found that in 2014 25 per cent of all job vacancies in Scotland were hard to fill because of a shortage in available skills, which was up from 15 per cent in 2011. The Scottish Government has raised concerns that the increase in skills shortages has occurred in the period following the closure of the post-study work visa, which has been touched on in the debate. The Scottish Government has consistently argued that improved post-study work routes would be beneficial to Scotland’s economic growth.

The reintroduction of a post-study work visa, which would allow international students to remain in Scotland and contribute to the economy for a defined period on completion of their studies, is crucial for Scotland’s future prosperity. Therefore, the UK Government’s reintroduction of the scheme for the south-east of England at the expense of elsewhere in the UK flies in the face of the one-nation position that we continually hear about from the London Government.

I will touch on the Erasmus scheme, which Iain Gray spoke about a few moments ago. I have already put on record my personal involvement with studying in the EU via the then Socrates scheme as well as through receiving funding from the European social fund, which allowed me to study for my masters qualification. The Colleges Scotland briefing for the debate is correct in stating:

“The opportunity for student exchange within Europe enriches the learning experience, enhances employability and promotes greater understanding and respect of different people and cultures.”

I have to say that the social side was not bad either.

I look back with great fondness on my time spent studying in France, Germany and Sweden and think of how my life has been enriched by my having had those opportunities. Without EU funding, I could not have gone there. My family were not flush with cash and, although my parents always helped my sister and me, there was no way that they could have paid the extra expense to allow me to study abroad. I am delighted that Scotland has 1,600 students going to study in EU countries via the Erasmus scheme. My disappointment is that it is only 1,600.

I could not wait to sign up to get the chance to study elsewhere, because I knew that the opportunities would be hugely beneficial for me. However, now that the Brexit vote has taken place and we have heard, at the weekend, that article 50 will be triggered by the end of March next year, what will the impact be on those Scottish school students who are thinking about studying at an EU institution but now cannot be guaranteed the funding to enable them to go? The easy response from some will be that the Scottish Government should fill the gap. However, it is not just a Scottish issue but a UK-wide problem; therefore, the UK Government, after creating the problem needlessly, needs to guarantee that school students across the UK who wish to study a language and have the opportunity to study abroad will still have that opportunity.

I was disappointed to read Amber Rudd’s comments today about

“tougher rules for students on lower quality courses”.

As I said a few moments ago, when someone goes to study abroad it is not just about the education; it is about the social, cultural and economically beneficial effects of that opportunity. I genuinely find Amber Rudd’s comments offensive and narrow minded, to say the least.

Despite the misconceptions of some people, not every Scot grows up in a tenement. Equally, however, not every Scot grows up in a leafy suburb. Some Scots want to study languages and have the life experience of going to study in a different country. Surely, Brexit should not close off that opportunity and aspiration, but that is what appears to be on the horizon thanks to the UK Government.

I grew up in Port Glasgow. I have a great family and friends, and my parents were always encouraging me to have a better life and look for better opportunities than they had. That is what parents do. My parents knew that, when I picked languages at school, the intention was to open up different opportunities for the years ahead. I want to do likewise for my children, but also for every child in my constituency and across Scotland.

In conclusion, Presiding Officer, the uncertainty caused by the UK Government in delaying decisions could lead to the financial exposure of many millions of pounds if it is not addressed, and it puts significant investment and jobs at risk, revealing the reality of Brexit.

Finally, Presiding Officer, addressing that uncertainty means the continuation of as close a relationship as possible with the EU and—for those of us in the SNP—our continued membership of networks such as Erasmus, agreements such as freedom of movement and the single market. Those things are crucial for Scotland’s economy going forward.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I remind members that, as far as I am concerned, “in conclusion” and “finally” mean the same thing.


Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I think we can all agree that Scotland has one of the very best higher education sectors in the world. It is a tremendous achievement, of which Scotland should be proud. As we have heard from the minister and others, Times Higher Education recently published the 2017 world university ranking. Five Scottish universities featured in the top 200 and another seven Scottish universities featured in the list that represents the best 5 per cent of universities in the world. The UK is second only to the USA for the number of institutions in the world’s best 800.

Europe has been and always will be an important partner of the higher education sector in Scotland. At undergraduate level, Scotland’s higher education sector contains more than 13,000 students of EU domicile, accounting for 8.9 per cent of undergraduate students. A further 5,390 EU students study at postgraduate level at Scottish universities and pay fees to do so. Under current arrangements, EU graduates can stay and work in Scotland. By doing so, they meet demand for high skills and contribute to the economy by spending about £156 million off campus. Having a diverse student community, made up of different nationalities—from European and other countries—adds flavour to the student experience and benefits students from this country and the learning environment in general.

Scottish universities employ around 4,600 staff who are EU nationals, in a range of academic and professional roles. Although the UK contributes more overall to the EU budget than it receives, it is one of the largest recipients of research funding in the EU.

Brexit presents challenges and a significant change for higher education but, alongside those challenges, there will be new opportunities. It is slightly depressing to sit here, week after week, and hear, from the SNP Government and back benchers, gloom and doom and more gloom and doom, without any positivity. They should try to learn a new lesson.

Stuart McMillan

On that point, will the member take an intervention?

Jeremy Balfour

I am sorry, but I need to push on.

As recently stated by Nick Hillman of the Higher Education Policy Institute, universities are international institutes—an international community of scholars and staff that predates the EU and will outlive our membership of the EU.

Universities recognise that they operate in a global—

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

I am very clear that universities do not need the EU for international collaboration, but they are already doing it. What is the upside for universities and colleges of leaving the EU?

Jeremy Balfour

Bear with me—I will get there in a moment.

As mentioned by Liz Smith, even if we leave the EU it does not mean that we will leave Europe or become less European in our ambitions. Universities want to maintain the closest possible relationship with our European neighbours and continue to see the exchange of talent across political boundaries.

We have heard about non-EU nations that do research. Switzerland and Norway take part in horizon 2020, despite not being part of the European Union. A total of 13 associated countries contribute to framework programme budgets in proportion to their gross domestic product, which allows them to take part in research and apply for horizon 2020 projects with the same status as those from EU member states.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Will the member give way?

Jeremy Balfour

I am sorry—I need to push on.

It is possible for non-EU countries to contribute, based on their GDP. Clearly the UK will have to negotiate a new deal in order to do that, but there is precedent in that area and it can happen.

We have heard from other members about the Erasmus programme. Non-EU countries, including Norway, take part in the programme, as do Turkey, Iceland, Lithuania and Macedonia. Again, we do not need EU membership to be part of the scheme.

There is also an opportunity to forge relationships with non-EU nations. Scottish universities have gone abroad to other parts of the world. Heriot-Watt University, here in the Lothians, has campuses in Dubai and Malaysia. There are opportunities to develop other such campuses in other parts of the world.

The Prime Minister has said that she wants the SNP Government to be fully engaged in Brexit negotiations. We need to ensure that Scotland and the UK continue to do that and to participate fully in future discussions about EU research programmes. Alastair Sim of Universities Scotland spoke of our universities being part of a cross-border ecosystem. On this issue, we cannot work in isolation but must collaborate with the whole of the UK.

Brexit will result in considerable change. The UK’s Governments and higher education sector must work closely together throughout the Brexit negotiations to ensure that the UK remains one of the world leaders in higher education. I firmly believe that our institutions have the ability to achieve that and to cement Scotland’s position within the UK as one of the greatest university nations in the world.

I am happy to support my colleague Liz Smith’s amendment.


Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

For once, I will not speak about colleges. I think that everyone expects me to speak about colleges all the time because I worked in one. However, while the debate has been going on, a photograph has come up on my phone of my former student Jakub Sirkowski being taught by Przemek Wasilewski, a former student of mine who is now teaching at North East Scotland College. They are very much in my mind as the debate progresses.

It is important to get testimony from the people who are most affected when we discuss the potential impact of Brexit. Recently, I got an email from Sam, who is a PhD research student and runs a lab at the University of Aberdeen that explores how inflammation and metabolism are linked and how we can treat diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cancer. I will do something unusual and, if it is okay, use my time to read out her email and give her a voice. This is what Sam wrote to me:

“The EU is critical to the medical sciences in Scotland. I can’t even begin to express how important our EU membership is. Personally my lab is partially funded by EU money from several EU grants and initiatives. We have some of the best research universities in the world for biomedical research, working on antibiotic resistance, stroke, heart disease, dementia and cancer.

One example of work being funded by the EU at my University is the development of next generation MRI scanners that will allow doctors to get more diagnostic information from people’s scans for conditions like dementia, cancer, and arthritis. Giving better medical information but also more detailed research information that can help scientists develop new treatments.

Collaboration internationally is one of the biggest parts of science now, a move towards large … collaborations, the sharing of data and specialist skills across many institutes has brought a revolution in quality of research. From 1981-2014 the number of science papers published with just a UK address dropped from 84% to 48% highlighting the amount of research done through international collaboration. The UK most certainly punches above its weight in international research and has the highest proportion of the world’s most highly-cited scientific research … placing it above the USA. EU funding and collaboration is at the heart of that success. The contribution to that figure from Scottish universities is disproportionate to our small population size. Scotland is a leader in university research in a wide range of disciplines. The quality of work conducted in this country is one of the reasons I chose to not go abroad to study for my PhD.

EU funding and collaboration is only part of it, though. The number of talented people that come to study here at doctoral level is incredible, in 2014-2015 there were 14,280 EU students studying for a full time research qualification.

Freedom of movement across the EU is critically important in allowing us to attract the best research students and the best staff from across the EU to Scotland. More importantly, it allows us to retain them. Abolition of the post study work visa has made it incredibly difficult for universities to retain international research students as students are now required to leave following completion of a PhD rather than being encouraged to stay and further their research.

And I worry about how the Home Office will allocate the work permits Theresa May is now talking about. In the biomedical sciences most jobs available are not on the Home Office’s required list and therefore they are subjected to full visa conditions including earning requirements. Contrary to popular belief, research jobs are not well paid, the average starting salary for a researcher in biomedical sciences in the UK holding a PhD is £24,000 before tax, normally rising to around £30,000 after ten years of experience.

Will the loss of EU membership subject these staff to the Tier 2 visa scheme where a threshold of £35,000 in earnings is a requirement for indefinite leave to remain? We’ll lose so many great people doing important work and progressing in the industry from doctoral researcher into independent researchers and the establishment of new labs and new expertise within the country-leading to who knows what scientific breakthroughs?

More generally, the morale is unbelievably low. Friends I have who work in research, who have come here to work, had children and are settled here are now unsure if they will be able to stay. These fears at present make it very hard for us to bring and retain talent within the scientific industry as people begin to seriously consider leaving the UK.

And that applies to me too.

I complete my PhD in September 2017 and I am now entering the phase of my career where I have to make choices about where I will go post-graduation. Competition for postdoctoral roles in research are already highly competitive and loss of funding and the breakdown of collaborations that Brexit may bring make me hesitant to rely on staying in Scotland for my career. This is my home, I have lived here all my life and I deeply value the investment the Scottish Government made in allowing me to attend university for free, and then further supporting my PhD through both university and NHS Scotland research funding, I want to return that investment.

My dream is that one day I will be a professor at a Scottish university—teaching, researching and helping further our knowledge and passing it on to another generation ... Without EU funding, support and collaboration I fear that will be impossible and I will be forced to look abroad to get the most out of my career. Sam.”

Sam needs answers, Sam’s colleagues need answers and Sam’s university needs answers. Will that funding be replaced? Will that collaboration be possible? Will talented EU citizens still be able to study and work in our universities? They need to know now, not in two years’ time.


Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

One of the things that I have enjoyed most since becoming an MSP is the amazing visits that we get to go on. It is a huge pleasure and privilege for me to have King’s buildings—the home of science and engineering for the University of Edinburgh—in the heart of the Edinburgh Southern constituency. In fact, I am such a self-confessed geek that over the past two weeks I have made not just one visit to King’s buildings, but two. Part of the reason why is that there is such amazing work going on there.

I will describe two projects that are happening there at the moment. The first is the li-fi—light fidelity—project, which involves wi-fi replacement technology that uses ordinary LED lamps connected to a router. It allows the equivalent of wi-fi but uses light, and is 20 times faster than cable. Because it is cable free, applications for getting broadband into remote areas are incredibly promising and exciting. Likewise, I got to see the Edinburgh genome foundry, which is an automated robotic genetics laboratory where robots are able to undertake genetic sequencing and engineering round the clock. That means that while researchers are sleeping, their work is carrying on in the lab.

What struck me was that not only is that work at King’s buildings innovative and creating the future, but is, above all else, highly international. The research teams do not have just one or two people from other countries; they are full of many people from all over the world.

Universities are important to Scotland and have a history of groundbreaking discoveries, but they also shape our future. As we know, the spin-outs from Scottish universities are highly successful and are a very real part of building our future industries. However, universities are international because—as Shirley-Anne Somerville pointed out—knowledge does not recognise borders. Clearly, collaboration builds progress: the broader that collaboration, the stronger the academic base.

I have to challenge Jeremy Balfour’s comments. I understand, and agree, that there are various programmes that we can renegotiate our position in and get access to. However, trying to doublethink our way into describing those renegotiations somehow as benefits or upsides to Brexit is perverse, because they are about things that we do already and are already part of. Any renegotiation would be an additional cost that we do not need.

Liz Smith

Notwithstanding the very considerable downsides that we on this side of the chamber have admitted to, there are upsides. For example, we can do a lot, in particular in relation to international projects that have been highly successful for some Scottish universities and are well beyond the boundaries of the EU.

Daniel Johnson

All that I heard was either about renegotiating our way back into programmes that we are in or about describing the international collaboration that we are doing. Where is the upside? I have yet to hear it.

If we look at the numbers, the impact of Brexit on our universities is very clear. At the University of Edinburgh alone, 10 per cent of its research funding comes from the EU, which is worth £23 million—a quarter of the Scottish funding total. It has 91 horizon 2020 projects worth €77.8 million, and 30 per cent of its research is co-authored with other EU institutions.

A number of members have mentioned the possibility—albeit that it has been anecdotal—of our researchers being asked not to take a lead on research projects. That is not an issue just because they like having their name at the top of the paper: academic work is built on reputation, and if the University of Edinburgh does not get the credit for its groundbreaking work, whether in wi-fi technology or genetics, other institutions will get that credit and be able to build their reputations.

This is not just a funding issue—universities are about people. The fundamental process of our universities is in taking the knowledge that our academics possess and passing it on to our students. When we consider that 14 per cent of University of Edinburgh students come from other parts of the EU, one can see the seriousness of the problem. One third of the students are doing science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, which we know are so important to our economy.

The problem is even starker when we look at staffing numbers: almost 2,500 University of Edinburgh staff come from the EU. Of academic staff, 25 per cent are from the EU. We have a context of uncertainty and insecurity because of the visa system that the UK Government has imposed.

Jeremy Balfour

Is the Labour Party in favour of Brexit? Are you now campaigning for no Brexit?

Daniel Johnson

We campaigned against Brexit—

Jeremy Balfour

And now?

Daniel Johnson

Jeremy Balfour should let me finish. We continue to take the view that there will be negative consequences, but we want to make the most of Brexit. It is, however, important that we understand the realities of the negative consequences that Brexit poses. I am told—again, anecdotally—that staff and students coming to Edinburgh are being advised not to fly through Heathrow because the immigration controls are such a nightmare to get through. That is the reality of what we are putting our universities through.

We need clarity. There is a total lack of a vision or a plan from the UK Government. Through the summer, we heard that it was part of Theresa May’s cunning plan not to say too much. I am sorry, but silence is not a strategy, it is not shrewd and it is not tactics; it is a dereliction of duty. We need to know some key things. We need to know the basics. Will EU nationals living here now continue to be allowed to live and work in this country? We do not know the answer to that. We need to understand what the vision is for research in this country. How will our research bodies work with EU bodies? The Scottish Government needs to provide clarity, too. We need clarity for students who are applying for courses this year, because the closing dates are upon us.

Some 8.9 per cent of students come from the EU, but we also need to investigate the possibility for bilateral relationships with EU research funding programmes. That work needs to be carried out now if we are to mitigate the undoubted damaging consequences of Brexit.


Graeme Dey (Angus South) (SNP)

The past few years have presented challenges for colleges as they have adapted to regional FE delivery models, and to the need to better align course delivery with future job opportunities and cope with funding reductions.

Few colleges have responded better to those challenges than Dundee and Angus College. The merged college, under the leadership of Grant Ritchie and his team, boasts the most successful record in attainment for young people up to the age of 18. Its learners from the 10 per cent most-deprived postcodes achieve 16 percentage points higher than the Scottish average. It has expanded the number of learners moving into advanced places at university year on year, it has doubled its activity with schools and it is working more closely than ever with the University of Dundee and Abertay University.

The college has also won a string of national awards for sustainability, learner engagement and student enterprise. It was the only Scottish finalist at The Times Educational Supplement college of the year award and it was named the north-east of Scotland employer of the year at the cherries awards for human resources, beating off competition from major national companies. Members might think that Dundee and Angus College would be looking to the future with justified optimism. However, right now a cloud is hanging over that college and all Scotland’s colleges, in the form of Brexit and the long-term implications of exiting the EU.

In its former existence as separate entities and in its current guise, Dundee and Angus College has benefited from some £30 million in EU funding since 1998. Annual income from EU sources will drop by some £2 million from the 2015-16 figure, following exit from the EU. The majority of the funding has been targeted at attracting learners from disadvantaged areas and supporting growth in small and medium-sized enterprises, and its loss will, according to the principal, “have a profound impact” on the college’s service to the community.

It is worth exploring what EU funding, which is drawn from a variety of sources, delivers in practice. For example, it has enabled the creation of a business incubator and enterprise facility, a sustainable industries institute, with state-of-the-art engineering facilities, and an employability centre.

The funding has also opened up reciprocal learning opportunities. Last year, for example, Dundee and Angus College students had work placements in Sweden, Spain, Romania and Slovenia, and staff groups went to Finland, Spain and Sweden to look at teaching innovation. All told, 103 students and 38 staff members took part in 14 such projects, and returned to introduce the best practice that they had gleaned from their engagements. Groups from Finland, Spain and Sweden made seven reciprocal visits to Tayside, building on the EU networking arrangements that are so valued by the people who are involved in them. In total, Dundee and Angus College has established partnerships with 33 organisations in a wide range of EU countries.

In addition, courtesy of funding from the European social fund—secured through a national funding application by the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council on the back of the awarding of additional credits—during 2015-16 Dundee and Angus College was able to offer an extra 450 students the opportunity to study, mainly in future growth areas including business and finance, energy, life sciences, digital and healthcare. That EU funding has supported the delivery of about 20 courses to higher national standard, with an estimated 10 teaching posts.

It is little wonder that there is concern on the Kingsway and Arbroath campuses over what the post-Brexit future holds. It is about not just hard cash: it is also about the engagement opportunities that being part of the EU and its arrangements provide. The Tory amendment claims that

“there will be new opportunities for both colleges and universities, especially in developing closer international links with further and higher education institutions in non-EU nations”.

Perhaps so, but why go through unnecessary upheaval, and how will the exploration and delivery of such links be funded? In essence, we are faced with the tearing up of all the collaboration that has been established across the EU in recent years.

The impact of Brexit for Dundee and Angus College and other Scottish colleges goes even further. Around 10 per cent of the student cohort at Dundee and Angus College are EU nationals. They live in the communities that I represent and have secured employment locally in the soft fruit, retail and care sectors, for example. Will the students who might follow in the footsteps of those valued contributors to our society and local economies choose to go elsewhere when they potentially face having to secure visas and not having their fees paid? A Hobsons survey of EU students found that 82 per cent would view the UK as a less attractive option for study if it voted to leave the EU.

The Tory amendment talks about

“the resourcefulness and creativity with which further and higher education institutions have always reacted to changing circumstances”.

The institutions are adaptable, but why expose them to risk and uncertainty and to the pitfalls that Iain Gray talked about? Members should be in no doubt that the impact of Brexit looks likely to be severe for the sector, as I set out in the context of the college that has a footprint in my constituency. No amount of deflection by the Tories can disguise that.

With every passing day since the UK voted to leave the EU, the wisdom that Scotland displayed in voting to remain becomes more obvious. With every passing day, the need for Scotland to avoid having its ties with the EU cut becomes clearer.


Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

As members said several times during the debate, the people who work in the further and higher education sectors were overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the European Union. It is important that we recognise that and that we understand those people’s concerns and work together to address them. There is no doubt that both sectors will have to deal with change, but challenges provide opportunities. We must grasp the opportunities that exist on the new path that has been chosen by the United Kingdom.

Take the Scottish Government’s flagship free tuition fee policy for Scotland-domiciled and EU students. Part of that policy must now change and the response from the Scottish Government must be to reset the funding policy for higher education, which—as everyone knows—has within it financial inequalities depending on the nationality of the students, as well as a problematic cap.

The Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe (Michael Russell)

I thank Alexander Stewart for giving way. The policy is based on domicile, not on nationality. It is very important to recognise that; I am sure that the member would not want to misrepresent the policy to Parliament.

Alexander Stewart

I mentioned domicile, not nationality. I thank the minister for the intervention.

It might be the case that more Scots than ever are attending university, but according to statistics from the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council, Scotland-domiciled students are a declining percentage of the total number of students attending university. We know that commitments were made regarding widening access so we have to ensure that that takes place.

I acknowledge that change needs to take place and that that change will come. The new status of EU students—whatever that will be—needs careful thought, particularly on the grounds of income stream, which is predominantly based on the Scottish Government—

Daniel Johnson

Will the member give way?

Alexander Stewart

No. I want to continue.

As my colleague Liz Smith pointed out, there is the possibility that the introduction of a fee for EU students will reduce the number of applications from EU countries. In turn, that will necessitate some careful arithmetic, which the sector is keen to get as soon as possible. We encourage the Holyrood and Westminster Governments to work together to provide that arithmetic. As Universities Scotland has said, the arithmetic is very important, especially when looking at and challenging strategic planning for the future.

There will be more opportunities for Scotland’s institutions as we move forward, and many institutions have already achieved a great deal. Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh is just one example: it has already developed campuses in Dubai and Malaysia. As the UK agrees new free-trade arrangements with nations around the globe, Scotland’s universities can seize the opportunity for international exposure.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am going to Heriot-Watt tomorrow. While I am there, perhaps I can explain to the principal—and to other principals—how they should adapt to what is already going on in China and the far east. Agencies there are already telling students, “Don’t go to Scotland or the UK. It’s closed. You should go somewhere else.” That is happening—just go out and speak to the principals. How do we deal with that?

Alexander Stewart

I thank the minister for her intervention, but Scotland is certainly not closed. We know it and she knows it. Scotland is open for business—the minister should listen to the rhetoric of her colleagues who occasionally try to say that.

One of the major concerns that has been raised by the universities has been about their future participation in European research. That has already been discussed this afternoon. It is important that we look at all streams of funding for research. Between 2007 and 2013, European Union research funding that was delivered through its seventh framework programme—FP7—accounted for 3 per cent of the UK’s total funding for research and development. We must ensure that our universities are no worse off in terms of the research and development funding that they can obtain.

We have talked about the horizon 2020 programme, which shows a real opportunity. Thirteen countries have associated status, including European Economic Area members Norway and Iceland, but Turkey and Israel also have access. As Alastair Sim of Universities Scotland said, associated countries

“are closely involved in that programme and have accesses that are not so different from those that European Union members have.”—[Official Report, European and External Relations Committee, 28 July 2016; c41.]

Likewise, participation in the Erasmus plus scheme—which provides immense opportunities to students—is open to countries that accept the free movement of people—for example, Norway and Iceland—and also to nations such as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Turkey. Although the Erasmus scheme will continue for Scotland-domiciled students as it has done in the 2016-17 academic year, it is very important that we look forward to what can be achieved and what is being achieved as we progress.

The institutions that make up the higher and further education sectors in Scotland are world-renowned for their teaching and their research. That is, to a great extent, as a result of their openness and their ability to attract the best and the brightest staff and students from around the globe. The vote on 23 June this year should not be seen as any rejection of that approach. Although we have, no doubt, heard that we are leaving the European Union, we are not leaving Europe, and we should continue to welcome those who have something to contribute to Scotland, while also looking to the opportunities beyond the European Union that we will continue to have. I look forward to that being achieved.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

I call Jenny Gilruth, who will be the last speaker in the open debate.


Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

I would like members to cast their minds back to the day—102 days ago, to be precise—when Britain voted to take itself out of the European Union, to take back control and to seize the opportunity to be a sovereign nation again. The doom and gloom of the remain camp was palpable. I quote:

“I do believe there are risks and uncertainties about the economy. I think people’s jobs would be at risk”—

so said our new Prime Minister, Theresa May.

“If you don’t know, don’t go”,

warned Ruth Davidson.

To allay public concern in the run-up to the Brexit vote, the UK Government helpfully published a reassuring document entitled “The process for withdrawing from the European Union”. I am sure that we all share NUS Scotland’s serious concern that it contained absolutely no reference whatsoever to education—nothing about schools, nothing about colleges and nothing about universities.

Perhaps Brexit is a good thing for Scotland. Education is devolved, after all, so we can take back control and seize the opportunities that the Conservative Party has so kindly foisted on Scotland.

Higher education and further education make a difference to people’s life chances. In my constituency of Mid Fife and Glenrothes, 31 per cent of school leavers from the 2012-13 cohort went on to further education. More or less the same percentage of children live in poverty, after housing costs are taken into account. At the start of last year, our unemployment rate was nearly double the national average. Education therefore matters to my constituents, because education gives people currency—it increases an individual’s earning potential and opens doors.

Colleges in Scotland have directly benefited from European funding, primarily via the developing Scotland’s workforce fund and the youth employment initiative. In total in this academic year, Scotland’s colleges will benefit from £18.2 million of European funding from those projects. Approximately £250 million of European funding has been provided towards historical capital projects in the college sector.

In our higher education institutions, 23 per cent of research-only staff are from the EU. Further, as has been stated, five of our universities—Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews, Dundee and Aberdeen—are in the Times Higher Education world university rankings. Our universities receive almost £90 million of research funding a year from EU sources alone.

I am sure that members across the chamber were delighted by the statement from the Scottish Government and Universities Scotland in July that reassured EU students that they will continue to benefit from free tuition and support for the duration of their courses. The message from the Scottish Government is clear: EU students are welcome in Scotland and their contribution is valued.

Like colleagues across the chamber, I wrote to EU citizens in my constituency following the Brexit vote. One replied:

“When we heard the result of the EU referendum, my Polish friends and I were worried and frightened. Of course I love Poland too. But my life is easier here. I am very happy here”.

Another said:

“I have lived in Scotland for 27 years and I have always felt welcome. But at the time prior to the referendum I did, for the very first time, feel like a foreigner because of careless comments people made.”

That is the reality of the Tories’ Brexit vote. EU citizens who are mothers, students and workers now feel unwelcome. They feel as if they do not belong.

Scotland is home to 173,000 EU nationals. It is the job of every MSP to ensure that those people recognise how much we value and need their contribution in Scottish society. Someone’s nationality should not be what qualifies them for employment—that is what qualifications are for.

Those are the reasons why higher education and further education are pivotal to Scotland’s future.

Less than a month after the vote, our new Prime Minister met our First Minister—I am sure that it was a cordial affair. The Prime Minister gave the First Minister a commitment that the Scottish Government would be fully involved in the process of developing a UK position in advance of article 50 being triggered.

It was therefore interesting to note the tone flip this weekend, when the Prime Minister said:

“There is no opt-out from Brexit and I will never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious union of the four nations of our United Kingdom.”

The divisive nationalism that will drag the UK out of Europe is acceptable. The divisive nationalism that led this country into a referendum on our EU membership, on the watch of a party that Scotland did not vote for, is fine. The divisive nationalism that resulted in the value of the pound falling to a three-year low against the euro yesterday is okay. However, the civic nationalism that my party stands for is dangerous. That is ugly separatism. That is parochial. That is isolationist. Scotland should know her place. The sheer audacity of the Conservative Party when it comes to Europe knows no bounds.

Scotland did not choose to be in this situation. Today’s motion commits the Scottish Government to taking action to stand up for Scotland’s best interests; to maintaining our membership of the European market and access to the free movement of labour; to maintaining the strong tradition of academic collaboration between European and Scottish higher education institutions; and to insisting that the UK Government ensures that we have a role in decision making and Brexit negotiations.

I will end with the words of the former Prime Minister, who said in 2009 as leader of the Opposition:

“We need mutual respect and a politics which is about discussion and delivery rather than about confrontation and grievance.”

Whether it is a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit, the scrambled Brexit that Scotland is being served up by the Tories is simply not good enough.

The Presiding Officer

We move to the closing speeches. I call Monica Lennon, who has a generous six minutes.


Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Many interesting points have been made during the debate by colleagues across the chamber. It has been clear from most members that the aftermath of the EU referendum is uncharted territory, particularly for the further and higher education sector in Scotland. I welcome the points that have been made in recognition of the sector’s importance and benefits to Scotland and I echo those sentiments. It is for those reasons that clarity on the sector’s future after the EU referendum is so important.

First and foremost, as has been said many times during the debate, we must reassure the students and staff at our colleges and universities. A lot of warmth towards and solidarity with the almost 13,500 undergraduate students from the EU and the 5,390 postgraduate students who study in our universities has been expressed. Postgraduate students from the EU make up more than 13 per cent of postgraduate taught students and almost 17 per cent of research students. As Daniel Johnson said, a third of those students study the STEM subjects, which are vital to the country’s future jobs and economy. As we know, under the current arrangements, EU students can stay and work in Scotland after graduation.

EU students make a huge contribution to our universities and our society and I agree with members across the chamber that we must make sure that the result of the EU referendum does not damage that. To prevent any knock-on effect on the numbers of EU students, universities and colleges require urgent clarity from the Scottish Government on the fee status of EU students who are applying for courses in 2017-18. Students are already applying for courses that begin next year, and institutions and applicants are being left in limbo on what the fee status of those students will be throughout their studies. Last month, Andrea Nolan of Universities Scotland told the Education and Skills Committee that universities require a response one way or another.

I welcome Shirley-Anne Somerville’s opening remarks. As the responsible minister, she has acknowledged the concerns, and I know that she appreciates the urgency of the situation. Labour hopes that the Scottish Government will soon be able to provide answers—and a timescale—on what the fee status of EU students will be for those who begin their studies in autumn 2017.

Stuart McMillan

On the point that Monica Lennon just put to the Scottish Government, it is clear that such a decision will have a financial implication, so the UK Government should ensure that the Scottish Government has any additional funds that will be required for such a guarantee.

Monica Lennon

If we were remaining in the EU, the Scottish Government would make that funding commitment anyway. However, I am heartened by Shirley-Anne Somerville’s commitment to continuing to engage with the university and college sector and our students in that regard. In the same vein, I hope that the Scottish Government will provide clarity on the position of academic staff and researchers and that they, too, will be given assurances that they and their dependants have the right to live and work here.

There are 4,600 staff from the EU working across the 19 higher education institutions in Scotland. Researchers from EU countries make up 16 per cent of academic staff in our universities—that number rises to almost 20 per cent in some of our institutions—and their contribution to our teaching and research excellence is vital. I echo the call in the joint statement from the UK national academies that those people deserve to receive absolute clarity on their position in the coming years. Similarly, outward opportunities for UK staff to collaborate and gain experience in other EU countries need to be safeguarded.

I know that there is agreement across the chamber that, regardless of the EU referendum result, it remains vital that EU countries know that Scotland’s further and higher education remains open and that the close relationship with our EU neighbours will remain in place. Reassurance from the Scottish Government and the UK Government regarding the funding of research projects and student places is central to that.

As we heard from some members, the college sector in particular benefits immensely from EU structural funds—in 2014, £13 million from the ESF created 3,500 extra college places. The impact of that funding for students in my Central Scotland region and the rest of the country cannot be overestimated. It is vital that the UK and Scottish Governments provide assurances about the continuation of funding in the event of Brexit and that they, along with the Scottish funding council, pursue all possible avenues to ensure that the college sector is not adversely affected.

Higher education institutions received £88.8 million of research funding from the EU in 2013-14, which accounts for 13 per cent of universities’ total annual research funding. Those figures are not insignificant. We all celebrate the fact that Scottish universities consistently punch above their weight in respect of EU funding. Scotland receives almost 20 per cent of the UK funding that is delivered through horizon 2020, which is the EU’s biggest research and innovation programme. Our excellence in research is recognised and rewarded by EU funding, which allows that work to flourish and continue.

I reiterate that I hope that the minister will keep in mind the importance of consulting students and young people on affected policy areas during the Brexit negotiation process, particularly in areas such as Erasmus participation and research funding. Stuart McMillan spoke well about how his experience helped to broaden his horizons across Europe. He has turned out pretty well, and we do not want other people to lose out.

Stuart McMillan

Thanks very much. [Laughter.]

Monica Lennon

We should keep it in mind that young people—particularly 16 and 17-year-olds—will, as the students of the near future, be most affected by any changes and implications of the EU referendum for Scotland’s further and higher education sector. I hope that the minister and the Scottish Government will keep that in mind in taking forward any discussions on the Brexit process and will make all necessary efforts to ensure that young people are engaged in that process.


Ross Thomson (North East Scotland) (Con)

Since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union on 23 June, the SNP Government’s response has been to show nothing more than belligerence rather than diplomacy. Rather than grasping the opportunity that Brexit presents, the SNP is working only to frustrate the process of the UK leaving the EU. It is working to shackle Scotland to the EU’s failing institutions and to blinker us from the growing economies outwith the EU around the globe, and it is using the referendum to justify its agenda of independence at any cost. That is an attempt to further its own interests rather than those of Scotland.

It is natural that any change will present a new set of challenges. My colleague Liz Smith conscientiously articulated what those challenges are for further and higher education institutions.

Iain Gray

Will the member give way?

Ross Thomson

Thank you, but I am just getting started.

What will define the Scottish Government is whether it can rise to meet those challenges and maximise Brexit opportunities for the benefit of Scottish further and higher education.

I recently met Universities Scotland. The stark message that is coming from our institutions is that the current settlement on university funding is unsustainable, with Scottish students being underfunded by 10 per cent. Our current membership of the EU means that we have to pay for the free tuition of EU students. EU law requires that applicants from Scotland and the rest of the EU—

Daniel Johnson

I believe that Mr Thomson is the fourth Tory member to hint today that EU students could cease to be funded by the Scottish Government. Is that now the position of the Conservative Party in this Parliament?

Ross Thomson

If Mr Johnson had allowed me to finish, I would have clarified that point.

EU law requires that applicants from Scotland and the rest of the EU are treated equally, with Scottish students often missing out on funded places at our universities. That costs more than £80 million a year, and the cost is rising.

When we leave the EU, we will have the new ability, if the Parliament chooses to use it, to charge EU students and use the money that is raised to fund bursaries and more places for Scots. It is important that our institutions and wider Scotland start to have a proper and well-thought-out debate about how exiting the EU can allow our institutions to raise additional revenue that could fund bursaries and places for Scottish students.

There is a myth that university tuition in Scotland is free. We know that international students from outwith the EU, as well as English students, pay thousands of pounds to study here. Our universities charge international students fees of up to £14,000. Just as an example, if our institutions charged EU students the full international rate, we could raise in excess of £220 million. If we were to charge EU students at the same rate as rest-of-UK students, we could still raise more than £90 million.

We should bear it in mind that the cost of providing free tuition to EU students is approximately £87 million. That money would be saved by not providing free tuition, and our universities would be better off by around £177 million, if the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament wanted to take that course of action.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Can the member name one single higher or further education institution that thinks that what he espouses is a good idea? I certainly have not heard from any such institution.

Ross Thomson

I have said that it is for the Parliament to debate whether the idea is good. In my meetings with it, Universities Scotland has said that we need to have a fundamental debate about the matter. Brexit will present new opportunities and it is up to the Scottish Government to bring forward its plans. Such a policy could help to ensure places for Scottish students and provide the bursaries to support students from the most deprived communities to get into university.

Our universities have raised natural concerns about research funding. My colleague Liz Smith mentioned that our institutions have shown tremendous adaptability in meeting numerous challenges, and they will no doubt continue to do so.

Members should bear it in mind that the vote on 23 June was to leave the structures of a political organisation—it was not a vote to turn our backs on our European neighbours. It was not about leaving Europe, and we will continue to co-operate closely with our European neighbours. We will now have the opportunity to look beyond the EU to some of the most exciting and dynamic regions of the world.

Daniel Johnson

Will the member take an intervention?

Ross Thomson

No—I would like to make progress.

Our world-leading universities will continue to collaborate with other European institutions, as well as collaborating with institutions elsewhere in the world. The EU-funded Ebola research programme, which involves the universities of Oxford and Stirling and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine along with 11 EU universities and Swiss universities, is a clear example of how countries outwith the EU, such as Switzerland and Norway, have been able to collaborate outwith the formal EU structures.

Lewis Macdonald (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Will the member take an intervention?

Ross Thomson

No, thank you. This week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, stated unequivocally that universities and researchers will have funds guaranteed for research bids that are made directly to the EU, including bids to the horizon 2020 programme, which is a £69 billion pot for science and innovation, and the Treasury will underwrite the funding awards even when projects continue post-Brexit. That move has been welcomed by Universities UK as providing much-needed stability for our universities during the transition period while the UK exits the EU, and it sends an important signal to European researchers that they can continue to collaborate with their UK colleagues as they have done before.

Currently, the UK is a net contributor to the EU budget, so the funding and grants that our institutions receive from the EU come nowhere close to the amount that we pay into the EU pot in the first place. In fact, even while we are a member of the EU, funding for our institutions is not guaranteed, as it is subject to the decisions of the EU and its structures, which are made by people who are not accessible or accountable to our institutions here in the UK. After the UK leaves the EU, those decisions can be taken here in the UK by bodies that are accountable to us.

I will touch on comments made by Jeremy Balfour, who acknowledged the challenges ahead and mentioned the Erasmus scheme, which Iain Gray and Stuart McMillan also mentioned. It should be borne in mind that, although Erasmus is co-ordinated by the EU, it is a project for the European continent and involves countries such as Norway, Iceland, Turkey, Macedonia and—goodness me—Liechtenstein. If they are involved, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the UK will not be. Opportunities to go abroad will exist for our students, but the difference is that those opportunities will be extended beyond Europe to the rest of the world.

So far, Scottish Government ministers have bemoaned the referendum result and stoked the flames of uncertainty in pursuing their independence cause, which, we have learned, transcends absolutely everything else. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, change brings challenge. Brexit brings challenge. The Scottish Government must remove its blinkers to see the swathe of new opportunities for our further and higher education institutions, for which the Scottish Government is wholly responsible. Mr Russell should bring forward a blueprint to demonstrate to us how he will seize the opportunities for our world-class institutions. Now more than ever, those in Scotland who advocated for leave and for remain must work together to secure the best possible deal for Scotland as we forge a new and positive relationship with the EU and the rest of the world.

The Presiding Officer

I call the minister, Mike Russell. If you want to speak until 1728 or 1729, I certainly will not object.


The Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe (Michael Russell)

I shall do my best, Presiding Officer. [Interruption.] I am glad that my colleague Mr Swinney is looking forward to this.

At the outset, I declare an interest. Until 1 September, I was professor of Scottish culture and governance at the University of Glasgow, which, I should note, is one of the top 200 universities in the world.

As usual, I have spent the afternoon listening to the Tory description of the sunny uplands that lie ahead of us when we exit the EU. Those sunny uplands are so exciting that, while the debate was going on this afternoon, the pound sank to a 31-year low and, just a few moments ago, the International Monetary Fund downgraded UK GDP growth because of Brexit. The sunny uplands are a fiction of Ross Thomson’s imagination, and having heard what he imagines, that worries me considerably.

Ross Thomson

Will the minister take an intervention?

Michael Russell

Not at the moment. If the member lets me make a little progress, I will be happy to hear what he has to say.

I want to address two things initially: the present situation in higher and further education in Scotland; and the issue of research.

In May 2012, I led the Scottish delegation to the plenary of the Bologna process, which was held in the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest—as anoraks in the chamber will know, it is the world’s second largest administrative building. There were 47 delegations present, and not just from EU countries or sovereign states. The outer group was that larger group of nations and the inner group was the European higher education area. The purpose of the Bologna process is to ensure compatibility between higher education systems and to allow students and academics to move from one place to another.

Scotland has one of the highest ratings within the Bologna process. It is seen as a nation that has key advantages. It is English speaking, it has high-quality institutions, of which five are in the top 200 and many more in the top 1,000, there are no fees for domestic students and there is good access for others. Most important of all, Scotland is part of the EU, so there is free movement for staff and students.

Given those circumstances, in the international world of higher education, membership of the EU is seen not as a disadvantage but as an advantage. It does not stop collaborations; it enhances them. In that regard, the Tory amendment is, to put it kindly, fatally flawed. Perhaps I will put it more bluntly: it is completely and utterly wrong. Coming out of the EU does not remove a tiresome impediment; coming out of the EU damages higher education in Scotland.

Liz Smith

The minister and I wanted a different referendum result and we have acknowledged in the debate that the colleges and universities wanted a different result. Is it not our duty and obligation to ensure that we make the best of the result and move forward? There are opportunities, even if we have chosen in this debate to accentuate some of the challenges. There are opportunities and it is our obligation to work together to ensure that we exploit them.

Michael Russell

The first obligation in any inquiry is to tell the truth. I cannot see what those advantages are.

Scottish universities are doing work across the globe, and that has happened while we have been in the EU. I will give four brief examples from my own experience. I had the wonderful experience of hosting a dinner with Anton Muscatelli in Calcutta, at which we welcomed old boys who studied at the University of Glasgow in the 1930s—Scotland has had an international reach for generations. More recently, I signed a memorandum of understanding in Putrajaya, near Kuala Lumpur, for Heriot-Watt University, establishing a new university campus there. I helped to open the Strathclyde business school campus at Noida, outside New Delhi. I attended a seminar in Vancouver on Scottish literature involving the University of Aberdeen. None of those places is part of the EU; all of them are places where Scotland is working. Indeed, it would be hard to find a country in the world where Scottish universities do not have either a memorandum of understanding or live links.

There is nothing in membership of the EU that is holding back Scottish higher education. However, not being in the EU will damage Scottish higher education. The proof of that lies in research. We have heard some of the details around research funding but there is a more insidious problem. The UK is towards the bottom of the averages for spend on research—research spend as a percentage of GDP is 2.08 per cent across the EU nations; it is only 1.72 per cent in the UK. Outside the EU, at the mercy of the UK holding the purse strings, we will do worse in research funding than we do now—there is no doubt about that whatsoever. Therefore, the threat to research funding in Scotland comes from leaving the EU. Every researcher from every university will say the same—it is a key problem. Indeed, it is the opposite of what we heard during the 2014 referendum, when apparently staying in the UK was wonderful for research. However, that has not turned out to be the case.

The reality of the situation, which we should acknowledge in the chamber, is that Scottish HE and FE are doing well. They are world quality; they provide strong service to students; they undertake world-quality research; and they attract key staff from across the globe. That is a big thing in higher education. The five universities that are in the top 200 have to compete globally for staff, and staff often come with groups of students, and doctoral and post-doctoral students in particular, because they compete in that world. They will not do so if there is insecurity.

Unfortunately, Brexit gets in the way of success in higher and further education. That is the reality, but how might we cope with it? There are four things that we need to consider. First, we must have free movement. Indeed, that is essential for participation in schemes such as Erasmus—there has to be free movement. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister appears to have ruled that out this very week. That is a threat that we have to overcome.

There has to be participation in key projects and if we are going to participate in key projects, we have to pay into them; we have to make sure that we are part of key projects.

There have to be guarantees of continuity of funding—not the flimsy guarantees that we have had up until now, but real guarantees.

Liz Smith

I am grateful to the minister for giving way again. Would he acknowledge that, within the guarantees that have to be provided, the Scottish Government has responsibilities in relation to the income stream that comes from different student categories?

Michael Russell

Absolutely, but I am sure that we would not expect to see the Tories taking advantage of the situation to push their own agenda of trying to impose fees on students. This Government has resisted that agenda and will go on resisting it—I am sure of that, knowing my colleagues in higher and further education.

After free movement, participation in projects and guarantees of funding, the fourth point relates to honesty and accuracy. I rarely quote Iain Gray with approval but he described the Tory attitude as a Pollyanna attitude, and that is what it is. Week after week, we have heard the attitude that if we just keep smiling and do not talk about the reality, it will all be okay in the end. Well, it will not be okay. We see from higher education what the problems are, so let us address the real issues: free movement; participation; guarantees of funding; and making sure that we are being honest to every sector in Scotland.

Let me address some of the points that have been raised in the debate. I have a strong admiration for Liz Smith, as she knows, although that has never been an advantage to her in her own party. I am pleased that she is so straightforward about the issue of post-study work visas and migration. That is very positive and I wish that her party listened to her more often on those matters because she is utterly right. Without the post-study work visa—without a realistic approach to migration and free movement—we will not be able to keep our unique position.

I hope that Liz Smith’s party is also listening to her on the issue of Scottish Government responsibilities, because she correctly made the point that the Scottish Government is responsible for HE funding and said that she hopes that we will discuss and negotiate that with the UK Government. I would welcome the chance to sit down and discuss matters of devolved competence with the UK Government, so I hope that Liz Smith will say that to her Tory colleagues in England. There are many solutions to the financial issues. They do not include removing the opportunity for free education, although they would of course include independence.

I move on to Iain Gray’s position on colleges and the threats to the number of students and EU funding. Our college sector is sharper, leaner and more focused than before, but we need to do more, and the college sector will have to be assisted in some way if Brexit takes place. Iain Gray correctly identified two key problems. One is about the moneys from European sources that are used to support the college sector, and the second is about the income that colleges often get from students who are EU citizens and who work here. The biggest guarantee that we could look for immediately is a guarantee of the right of those individuals to stay in Scotland—that would help enormously.

Jeremy Balfour talked a great deal about research. He touched on a key point when he said that Norway and Switzerland are exemplars of countries outside the EU that are doing well. With Scotland, Switzerland is the most cited small country in the world in research per head of population because all the papers from CERN are published under the Swiss imprint. However, I should point out that CERN would not be possible without free movement of labour and that Norway also has free movement of labour. If the front-bench Tories in this Parliament believe in free movement of labour, I hope that that they will make that point to the hard Brexiteers who appear to be in control in Birmingham this week because, without that free movement, none of that research would be possible.

Gillian Martin made a tremendous speech. In reading an email from somebody else—I do not diminish her skills as a speaker—she made an important contribution to the debate and raised an important question that was not answered by Amber Rudd today when she talked about the “generous offer” that is made to students and looking at “tougher rules”. The reality is that the attitudes that have been shown today by Amber Rudd and by the UK Tory Government will drive away good researchers because, as Gillian Martin’s correspondent Sam said, they will feel insecure and will question their future, and there are other places where they can work. My colleague Mr Swinney made the same point about doctors. In reality, university medical schools will suffer immediately, because the highly skilled medics who teach in universities can teach in other places. They will look at what has been said today about doctors not being welcome and say, “I could work elsewhere.”

I will finish with Ross Thomson’s speech, although perhaps the debate would have been happier if it had finished before he spoke. Unfortunately, he showed that he has no knowledge of the sector and no support in it. His suggestions would damage the prospects not just of universities in Scotland but of every Scottish student. It is complete nonsense to say that Scottish students are being squeezed out in any way, as there are more students in Scottish universities than there ever have been and their results are better than ever. Ross Thomson’s approach to the debate was to inject a hard-line right-wing view of what universities should be. [Interruption.] Unfortunately, it is not laughable, Mr Thomson.

If we allow that hard-line right-wing view to dominate the debate on higher education, we will lose the precious advantages of Scottish higher education. Those advantages are threefold. One is that it is open and accessible, and it is honest to its traditions in that way. Secondly, it is of the highest quality—it is world beating. The third great advantage of Scottish higher education is that—as we believe—education is a societal good, not an individual good, and we all benefit from it.