Brexit risks “pulling the rug out” from under a “huge number” of students’ lives in Scotland, a parliamentary committee heard today.
MSPs were also told that racism was rising in educational institutions, and that rhetoric around Brexit was “dangerous” to students and staff.
Mary Senior, Scotland official for the University and College Union (UCU), said that Brexit was anathema to her because “education doesn’t observe national borders or geographical boundaries [and] is about sharing ideas and pushing knowledge boundaries”.
Quick read: Save Erasmus, urge Scottish and Welsh ministers
Political awareness: It's vital – but who is teaching it?
Blame game: 'You can't blame independent schools for Brexit'
Ms Senior added that “Brexit has come along and really created so much uncertainty, chaos, crisis and fear”, particularly for EU nationals and other overseas staff. Addressing the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee today, she also said that Scotland “hasn’t been immune to a rise in racism which has been playing out in our campuses”.
She criticised the “hostile environment” approach being promoted by the UK government.
Ms Senior said: “Last year we had then prime minister [Theresa May] talking about EU citizens potentially ‘queue-jumping’. We now have a prime minister [Boris Johnson] who describes Muslim women wearing the hijab as ‘letterboxes’ and that really plays into a really dangerous narrative.”
Liam McCabe, president of students' union NUS Scotland, said the union could only get behind a Brexit withdrawal agreement if there was a guarantee of: a “fair and accessible immigration system”; continued membership of the Erasmus scheme; protection of “vital funding”; and no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
On funding, Mr McCabe called on the Scottish government to fill a £90 million "black hole" left by EU funding.
He said stressed that, while his union would be “content” with guarantees on the four above points, “ultimately we do not see a departure from the European Union in any kind of way as being beneficial to students”.
Mr McCabe said: “It’s incredibly important that we do not lose sight of the tangible, material, real impact this is having on the lives of people the length and breadth not just of Scotland but, indeed, the rest of the UK.”
He added: “This has the capacity and potential to absolutely pull the rug out from underneath a huge number of students’ feet.”
That applied even to many students who had spent their entire lives in the UK and had assumed EU citizenship gave them certain guarantees.
Mr McCabe said: “Those students who are currently on courses – further education, higher education or otherwise – which will end up producing a professional qualification, many of them may well have gone on to those courses with the expectation that that professional qualification will be internationally recognised and [that] they will be able to work and live wherever, and do the same job wherever they go.”
Now, however, there was a danger of students partway through a course learning that the qualification they were working towards might not be recognised in other countries.
Mr McCabe said this was “totally unacceptable” and would “undermine people’s entire plans for their future”.
He added: "It’s just one more facet of the potential chaos which is going to be unleashed as a consequence of no-deal, and reveals the deeply integrated relationship we have with European institutions and what we stand to lose out on if there is a no-deal departure.”
Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, told the committee that he represented the leaders of the country’s higher education institutions, “all of whom are concerned about a no-deal Brexit”. The lack of a withdrawal deal so close to the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU on 31 October was “extremely troubling”.
Committee member Oliver Mundell, a Conservative MSP, said the views being presented were “very depressing”, and suggested that if Theresa May’s withdrawal deal had been supported by parliamentarians at Westminster and the UK had left the EU in March, as originally planned, “we’d have moved on”.
Mr Mundell asked if the current uncertainty was worse than the consequences of the former prime minister’s withdrawal agreement, which was was rejected three times.
Mr Sim said: “I think we would probably rather live with a little bit of a longer period of uncertainty than face the prospect of a no-deal Brexit on 31 October.”
He added that “the prospects of crashing out with a no-deal are really serious”.