The publication this week of the All Party Parliamentary Group Inquiry into International Students was a welcome intervention from Westminster representatives keen to maintain the global prominence of UK education and to promote it to international students. What was particularly pleasing was the focus given beyond the lens of university provision to include recommendations for ensuring access to education for those international students who choose to study at a college.
The evidence provided to the inquiry by the Association of Colleges makes for stark reading, highlighting that, after the tightening of restrictions to Tier 4 sponsor licences in 2015, the number of students on these visas in further education, transition courses and higher education provided by colleges across the UK fell by more than 70 per cent and has not recovered.
In Scotland, the strength of the college sector is built on a foundation of diversity. It is not easy to succinctly encapsulate the impact colleges have on individuals, communities and the national economy. Whilst delivering world-class technical and professional education and skills training, our colleges are also building social capital by widening and deepening access to opportunities for those learners whose paths might previously not have led to positive destinations.
It is essential that our institutions remain globally connected, not only to compete with the best but to also ensure that our graduates have a seamless transition from their training to jobs which can maximise their skills.
Scotland has long held a genuine cross-party consensus on international student recruitment as a positive boon to our education institutions. There has been a call for the reintroduction of a post-study work visa scheme akin to Fresh Talent, which includes graduates from our colleges.
A recent report entitled Welcome to Scotland? was published by the Scottish Parliament’s Devolution (Further Powers) Committee in the wake of the Smith Commission and looked specifically at post-study work visas.
The committee’s recommendations were blunt and laid the blame for the Scottish education sector falling behind competitor countries in recruiting international talent firmly at the feet of the UK government’s policy changes.
The report – which was produced by a cross-party group of MSPs – firmly recommended the reintroduction of a post-study work visa as a tool to make Scottish education institutions more attractive to international students and to maintain that talent in the Scottish economy.
So this week's APPG report provided a reassuring reflection that the position broadly adopted by civic society in Scotland is shared across the UK.
However, while the UK government is led by a party with a stated position to reduce net migration, including international students – a position which is rooted purely in ideology rather than economic evidence – this report is, realistically, nothing more than a lovely read.
In a global race for talent, the UK government’s attitude to immigration ensures that we will come a distant last.
Vonnie Sandlan is a senior policy officer at Colleges Scotland