Despite Brexit, Scotland is taking steps to remain true friend of EU – Richard Lochhead

A 'One Europe For All' march in Berlin last weekend showed the strength of pro-EU feeling (Picture: Michele Tantussi/Getty Images)
A 'One Europe For All' march in Berlin last weekend showed the strength of pro-EU feeling (Picture: Michele Tantussi/Getty Images)
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Scotland’s firm commitment to internationalism and cultural and intellectual exchange is demonstrated by proportionally more Scottish students going on the Erasmus exchange than from any other country in the UK, writes Scottish Government Minister Richard Lochhead.

We can forget sometimes just how high Scotland’s international reputation can be.

In my previous ministerial job, I found that out at first hand as I promoted our world-class food-and-drink sector in Europe and across the globe.

Now I am acutely aware of the value of our university sector both here at home and on the international stage. In fact, we have more top universities per head of population than any other country, bar Switzerland.

With the turmoil at Westminster and the growing prospect of a hard-line, isolationist Brexiteer taking over as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, it is more important than ever to proclaim and protect Scotland’s internationalist values.

In many ways, our university sector exemplifies our wider vision of Scotland’s place in Europe. We have benefited enormously from the EU students and staff who have chosen to study and work in Scotland. But equally we have made a major contribution to other European countries and the common good through collaborative research and other projects.

It’s one of the reasons the Scottish Government believes so strongly that EU membership is good for Scotland and why people should be given the opportunity to stop Brexit.

Last week I led a delegation from Scotland’s universities to Berlin to deepen vital research, education, innovation and alumni connections with Germany under the banner of “Connected Scotland”.

Flying the flag abroad for Scottish education and research is crucial in the face of a Brexit that Scotland did not vote for. We must do all we can to ensure our fellow EU citizens who come to Scotland know we value their positive contribution to our economy and society, and that they are respected, appreciated and welcome here.

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We have already confirmed that eligible EU students starting courses in academic year 2020-21 will benefit from free tuition for the duration of their courses.

Since 2000, the proportion of international students in Scotland has more than doubled – from 10 per cent to 22 per cent – and now come from 180 countries. Almost 3,000 German students are at Scottish universities – the largest single group from the EU, and the third largest in Scotland after China and the United States. And there are currently over 20,000 Germans living in Scotland.

So we have an increasing number of alumni who will return home after study and could act as strong ambassadors for Scotland.

As an outward-looking, pro-European nation, we have long valued the place of education and research partnerships with other nations – none more so than with organisations and people in Germany. Make no mistake, people in Germany value their connections with Scotland just as much. Germany is Scotland’s fourth highest export country and sixth highest inward-investing country.

German-Scottish links go back a long way. From Scottish merchants trading with Hamburg, to the influence of Goethe on 19th century philosophers like Thomas Carlyle, and our endeavours through the Enlightenment period, ours is a shared history. It lives on today in the huge range of international research and innovation collaborations involving Scottish and German researchers and organisations in areas such as data, wind energy and mapping the human brain.

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Scottish universities and others know that collaboration with German partners is a key factor for success. The University of Glasgow is home to the first International Max Planck Partnership in the UK, bringing together physicists from five Scottish universities and five German Max Planck Institutes to establish collaborations in quantum science. Since 2012, the University of Strathclyde has hosted the Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics, the only one of its kind in the UK.

In the uncertain environment created by Brexit, Scottish universities are stepping up their engagement with German organisations, saying loudly and clearly that they do not want to lose these vital partnerships. The European Centre for Advanced Studies in Lüneburg, launched by the universities of Glasgow and Leuphana in April this year, will provide joint courses and deepen research collaboration. The University of St Andrews has recently reached a strategic agreement with Bonn University to exchange staff and students, including opportunities for research, teaching and study.

And Prof Sir Anton Muscatelli, as chair of the UK Russell Group of universities including Glasgow and Edinburgh, signed a memorandum of understanding with the German U15 group of universities last year.

Scotland’s firm commitment to internationalism and cultural and intellectual exchange is demonstrated by proportionally more Scottish students going on the Erasmus exchange than from any other country in the UK.

And Germany is Scotland’s top partner in the EU for collaboration under the Horizon 2020 flagship research and innovation programme, generating impact and excellence for both countries.

The German people I met, from alumni of our universities to those who had been on Erasmus schemes to those involved in research collaboration, displayed a huge amount of goodwill to further collaborate with Scotland. I intend to ensure that we will be able to capitalise on that.

During one of the sessions in Berlin, there was a comment that Scotland should think about leading not just a new scientific wave of opportunity, but also a thought leadership one – a new Enlightenment.

We can only do so if we remain in attitude, thought and action a true partner and friend of Europe. And that is exactly what Scotland wants to continue to be.

Richard Lochhead is Minister for Further, Higher Education and Science and SNP MSP for Moray