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Brexit: 'We must keep telling EU students and staff they are welcome'

Educators and government must mitigate the 'utter madness' of Brexit, writes Scotland's FE minister Richard Lochhead

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As the Brexit process lurches from crisis to crisis, our universities and colleges, staff and students from the UK or the EU, have numerous questions on how Brexit will affect them.

Unfortunately, I suspect answers will not be imminent.

What we do know is that Brexit means a loss of talent, a loss of access to EU programmes and fewer opportunities for student mobility, research collaborations and funding.

Read more: Teachers refusing to discuss ‘controversial’ Brexit with pupils

Background: 'Let's not forget our colleges' international staff'

More news: Government publishes Brexit action plan for FE

Protecting Scotland's interest

The Scottish government is working to protect Scotland’s interests and mitigate the impact caused by the utter madness of leaving the EU – "the most unhinged example of national self-sabotage in living memory", as Professor Muscatelli, principal at the University of Glasgow, described it.

Our Brexit action plan highlights some of the activity we are taking to counter the threats. 

I can’t say enough how welcome EU students and staff are here. They enrich our campuses and we want them to stay. I know EU citizens value this reassurance, and I think it’s incumbent on all of us to keep that message alive. The Scottish government has launched the Stay in Scotland campaign to offer practical support to EU citizens living here, and to reiterate that we value the contribution they make to our communities.

We have proportionally more EU students on our college and university campuses than other parts of the UK, while EU nationals make up a quarter of our research staff.

Distinctive needs

Yet on immigration, where the UK government holds the cards, we lose out to policies that take no account of our distinctive needs. A £30,000 earning cap will deter many early-career researchers coming to the UK.  

The proposed "no deal" migration policy, allowing a temporary leave to stay for three years, ignores the fact that the majority of undergraduate courses in Scotland last four years! To then suggest that EU students could apply for a visa for a further year to complete their course – at a cost of up to £840 – is simply outrageous.

These measures put Scottish institutions at a serious disadvantage when competing to attract EU nationals to study and I have already raised this with my UK counterparts – most recently in a meeting with Chris Skidmore and the other UK education ministers this week.

For students wanting to go abroad to learn, it’s also a disaster. Proportionally more Scottish students take part in the Erasmus+ exchange than other parts of the UK. Our continued participation in the scheme, particularly in the event of "no deal", threatens all students involved in work or study placements across Europe.

Untenable increases in costs

Depending on how the UK leaves the EU, and how other EU countries respond, UK citizens studying for full degrees in the EU could suddenly find themselves liable for international student fees, medical care and travel insurance. Our estimates suggest hundreds of students from Scotland may be affected. 

Facing untenable increases in costs, many of these students – perhaps even the vast majority – may have to come home. So we have guaranteed that any eligible student who left Scotland to study in the EU, and has to give up their studies, will receive student support and tuition fees to study in Scotland. A cast-iron guarantee that is sadly lacking elsewhere.  

We are also considering longer-term rights for Scottish citizens living in the EU to access further and higher education student support. This will ensure eligible citizens can still return to Scotland post-Brexit to take up study in the future and be able to access the same support they are currently eligible for.

For eligible EU students already studying here, or thinking of studying here in 2019-20, we will provide tuition fees for the duration of their course.  

As well as attracting talented EU students, researchers based in Scotland are successfully bidding for funding from Horizon 2020, the EU’s flagship competitive research and innovation funding programme.  

Funding for research

Since Horizon 2020 launched in 2014, almost €600 million of funding for research and innovation has been secured by Scottish organisations. 

But latest figures are worrying – the total share of UK and Scottish participations in Horizon 2020 projects is falling. Researchers are telling us that EU partners who would have previously wished to collaborate are avoiding doing so now, due to ongoing uncertainty.  

With a potential drop in EU nationals coming to Scotland, the number of EU nationals enrolling in Scotland’s colleges could also drop. That could lead to a delayed impact on the skilled workforce available to support our productivity and economic growth.

European Social Fund (ESF) programmes are also under threat. Jointly delivered by the Scottish Funding Council and the EU, they have provided additional student places at colleges, and some universities, for upskilling and supporting young people not yet in employment, education and training. In 2017-18, £14 million of funding was match-funded by ESF programmes.

I have already written to every college and university principal to highlight the work we are doing, and to continue our dialogue on the impact of Brexit. 

I will also convene a second joint-sector Brexit Summit in May so we can consider how we work together to respond to the challenges of Brexit. Until then, I will stay in constant communication with the sector as we work together to tackle the catastrophic consequences of Brexit.

Richard Lochhead is Scotland's minister for further education, higher education and science

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