Stuart McWilliams: Post-study visa to help education and economy

ATTRACTING and keeping skilled workers is crucial, says Stuart McWilliams

Higher education in Scotland is attracting and developing a wealth of talent from abroad. Picture: TSPL

THE work of an immigration lawyer is rarely seasonal, with the timing of most visa applications being driven by individual circumstances – except that every January and February I will be asked to advise on visa options for non-EEA (European Economic Area) students coming to the end of their courses.

There was a time when these inquiries were straightforward, but now a student in such a situation has limited options and usually has to find a highly-paid role with a company holding a sponsor licence.

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The compliance regime for sponsoring employers is exceptionally complex, and specialist advice is often required. This makes it particularly difficult for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Given that SMEs make up 99 per cent of Scottish businesses, it is harder for international graduates to remain in Scotland than the rest of the UK.

The University of Edinburgh recently renewed its call for the reintroduction of a post-study work visa. Since its abolition by Westminster in 2012, the higher education sector has pushed for its reintroduction due to concerns that without it, the UK may appear a less attractive option for international students. The Scottish Government has taken up the cause and a cross-party working group is likely to propose a new scheme in the coming months. The Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster is also conducting an inquiry into the issue.

While the higher education sector has been at the forefront, this issue goes beyond education and affects the broader Scottish economy, where skill shortages present a very real problem. Take the digital technology sector. According to the Scottish Government, it needs 10,000 new employees each year to continue to grow – but current numbers are just below half that figure. Immigration can play a key role in filling that skills gap and helping Scottish companies to grow, but an important aspect of this is retaining skilled graduates.

The latest proposals for business immigration changes would see the minimum starting salary for graduates rise to £23,000, which many start-ups and SMEs will find difficult to meet. The proposals would also increase the minimum salary for experienced workers to above £30,000, and in some software jobs it will be as high as £40,000, meaning firms may experience difficulties retaining existing international staff, let alone hiring extra staff.

These same businesses could also face having to pay a skills charge of £1,000 per year for each employee it sponsors to stay in the UK. These proposals, if implemented, may have the effect of making it more difficult to retain skilled workers who could be a vital part of the growth of digital technology in Scotland.

Higher education in Scotland is attracting and developing a wealth of talent but the options for retaining that talent are limited and this needs to be addressed urgently. While much attention is devoted to the government’s target of reducing net migration, there are concerns that current restrictions mean we are failing to meet the second stated target: to attract the best and brightest. Even when we do so, we are in danger of losing them. A post-study work visa that allows talented international graduates to stay in Scotland to find work would benefit the higher education sector and the wider Scottish economy.

Giving evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee, I highlighted that the existing immigration framework could easily be amended to incorporate a Scottish visa and it is a change many will hope to see in the near future.

• Stuart McWilliams is an associate with Morton Fraser