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MPs conclude that this is a crunch time for Scottish universities

28 May 2021

Improved collaboration and engagement required to help the sector through the joint impacts of Covid and Brexit. In a wide ranging report on the impact of reserved decisions on Scottish universities, the latest Scottish Affairs Committee report on Universities and Scotland recommends that the programme replacing the EU’s Erasmus+ scheme should be expanded to provide funding for placements for inward bound international students and cover opportunities for academic staff.

The Committee examined the challenges facing the higher education sector in Scotland. While responsibility for higher education in Scotland rests with the Scottish Government, UK Government actions in policy areas it controls, such as immigration and visas, can have a big impact on the sector.

The Turing Scheme to cover inward placements for international students and academics, not just outward UK students

Current plans for the UK Government’s Turing Scheme will see £110 million made available to fund 35,000 UK students per year to study abroad. MPs on the Committee welcomed the Scheme, but noted “with regret” it does not currently support UK placements for international students. This could have knock-on effects for local economies that benefit from spending by students from abroad.

New scholarships for EU students and lower visa fees for academics needed to maintain competitiveness

A similar concern highlighted by the report was the 40% reduction in applicants wanting to study at Scottish universities from the EU for the 2021-22 academic year. EU students fill “difficult to recruit for” STEM subjects and are more likely to enter academia or research following graduation than other international counterparts. The slide in EU student numbers should be addressed, the Committee said, in part by introducing a new or expanded scholarship scheme attracting EU students to the UK and Scotland.

MPs on the Committee praised the UK Government’s introduction of the Post-study work visa for playing a ‘key role in attracting, and retaining’, the best students from abroad. They also welcomed the Global Talent visa but pointed out that it comes at a high cost, which could act as a disincentive to attracting international academics. The report urged the Government to bring down the cost of the visa to competitive levels.

More Scottish representation on research funding body UKRI

The report also calls for a shake-up of the UK-wide funding body UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). It says that Scottish academic research institutions “deserve appropriate recognition and influence” in line with the contribution they will be making to the post-pandemic recovery. The Committee called on the Secretary of State for Business to improve the representation of Scottish universities on the UKRI board. The Scottish Funding Council should also have a seat on the UKRI Executive Committee, a decision which is at the discretion of UKRI’s CEO. The report highlights the sector’s concerns about the impact of reductions in UK overseas aid spending on UKRI funding, up to 70% in some estimates, and urges the Government to stick to the financial commitments it made in its R&D roadmap.

Improved collaboration and engagement needed in reserved areas where there are impacts for higher education in Scotland

On publication of the Committee’s report, Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee Pete Wishart said,

“This is a crunch time for Scottish universities and improved collaboration and engagement on reserved issues is the key to ensuring the wellbeing of our university sector.

The reputation of Scottish universities and the research they conduct is nothing short of world class. But they face challenges made more difficult by Brexit and coronavirus. Getting the policies impacting them right will help them through this rough patch and strengthen the foundations of higher education and research.

The UK Government’s ambitions to make the UK a “science superpower” will be boosted by creating a friendlier climate for students and researchers from abroad. They offer new ideas, new ways of thinking and enhance the cultural experience at our universities. To demand they pay more than 10 times as much cash as our competitors to relocate is self-defeating. If we are serious about maintaining competitiveness, the UK Government should introduce a new scholarship for EU staff and students, reduced visa fees, stick to its commitments on research spending and expand the Turing exchange scheme.

It’s also time to address disparities on the UK’s main research funding body. English universities and funding bodies are already embedded into UK Research & Innovation. The fear is that the lack of Scottish representation makes it more difficult to align the priorities of the Scottish institutions with UKRI. We want to see the deserved and rightful representation of Scottish higher education achieved by the inclusion of positions for a Scottish university and the Scottish Funding Council on UKRI decision-making bodies.”

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