Brain drain fear as EU students snub Scots universities

European student numbers have slumped at Scottish universities since the Brexit vote, prompting fears the UK government’s hardline immigration approach risks “shutting Scotland off from the rest of the world”.

Students in Edinburgh's Bristo Square. Fewer EU applicants could mean more Scots getting free places. Picture: Ian Georgeson

There has been a 10 per cent decline in the number of EU students enrolling at Scots institutions since 2016 following years of steady growth, official figures show.

The SNP had blamed the fall on the Tory government’s hostile approach to immigration in a week that saw Westminster unveil radical plans to end the open migration of unskilled labour from Europe.

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But the UK government has played down the claims, insisting that EU student numbers across the rest of the UK have gone up since the Brexit referendum.

The figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, obtained by the SNP, show a drop of over 500 first-year students from EU countries enrolling at Scottish universities compared with 2016/17 levels.

Nationalist Aberdeen Central MSP Kevin Stewart said: “Scotland has some of the best universities in the world, so it’s no surprise that students from across the globe flock here to study.

“But after years of steady growth in the number of European students choosing Scotland, it is extremely worrying to see just how big an impact this Tory Brexit is having on our top-rate higher education system.

“This is not just bad news for our universities, but it’s bad news for our local economies too, that rely on the millions of pounds generated by EU students every year.”

The agency figures show first-year EU undergraduate students in higher education in Scotland stood at 5,045 in 2016/17. This had fallen to 4,695 (-6.9 per cent) the following year and declined again to 4,540 (-10 per cent) in 2018/19. The fall in EU students numbers could result in more Scottish students getting to university, as both groups fall into the capped “funded places” category. Fewer EU students would mean a higher proportion of Scots students get one of the “restricted” places.

Stewart, the Scottish Government’s housing minister, has now stepped up calls for a standalone Scottish visa system that would see potential migrants only allowed to take employment in Scotland.

“Boris Johnson’s hostile approach to immigration risks shutting off Scotland from the rest of the world,” Stewart said.

“It’s time Holyrood is handed control over immigration so we can build an outward-looking migration policy that suits Scotland’s needs.” Plans unveiled by the UK government last week mean low-skilled workers would not get visas under post-Brexit immigration.

The points-based system would be based on criteria such as speaking English, the salary on offer and working in areas with shortages. A total of 70 points secures entry.

But there are fears that Scotland, which is far more heavily reliant on immigration to ensure future population growth and to support key sectors, will be hit disproportionately hard by the new approach.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is calling for a meeting with Boris Johnson to discuss immigration policy in a letter released today.

A UK government spokesperson said: “We have confirmed international students will be able to stay in the UK for two years after they graduate, making the UK’s offer even more attractive and easier for them to secure skilled jobs in the UK.”

But concerns over the immigration approach being adopted by the Tories at Westminster, which would come into force at the start of next year, have generated broader concerns among industry leaders who fear they could struggle to recruit workers.

Dr Liz Cameron, chief executive at Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said: “The UK’s immigration proposals will present major challenges for employers in social care, agriculture, tourism and other key sectors, and will require continuous review to address increasingly critical labour shortages.”

Scottish higher education minster Richard Lochhead said: “These figures are deeply concerning. Brexit is the single biggest risk to Scottish universities and that’s why we will continue to send a strong message.”