They have left me in no doubt that the uncertainty of Brexit is the biggest single challenge facing the university sector – and by some margin.
Scottish universities teach more than 25,000 EU nationals – around 10 per cent of all university students – and employ more than 4,500 EU staff. That is due in part to the global attractiveness of our universities, four of which are in the World Top 200.
Professor George Boyne, the Principal of the University of Aberdeen – which was last week named as the Scottish University of the Year – has warned that Brexit will not only bring difficulties attracting new EU students, it means a much greater risk of losing existing EU staff.
So as the prospect of a no-deal Brexit looms ever closer, it is absolutely vital that our institutions, staff and students receive the clarity they deserve.
And we should never forget the cultural, social and economic contribution that EU staff and students bring to our communities.
That’s why the Scottish Government has been working to provide as much certainty as possible in the current climate, and challenging the UK Government on its plans.
We have guaranteed that eligible EU students already studying here, or starting a degree this academic year, will continue to be eligible for free tuition.
Whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, that is a clear message that EU students are welcome, and that we want them to stay.
We also continue to press the UK government to clarify its plans for the Erasmus+ student exchange programme,
This scheme promotes valuable skills and experience that young people need to thrive in the modern world, which is why since 2014, more than 15,000 people have been involved in nearly 500 Erasmus+ projects across Scotland.
Ensuring that people from Scotland continue to have the opportunity to experience volunteering and studying overseas is also essential and we want to continue participating in Erasmus+ and its successor programmes after Brexit.
Another area where Brexit is a pressing concern is in university research.
On average, around 10 per cent of Scottish universities’ research income comes from the EU.
In Scotland, universities are the main recipients of funding from Europe’s research and innovation funding programme, Horizon 2020, and have secured almost €387 million (£345m) of all the funding awarded since 2014. Additional research income has come from other European funding programmes such as Interreg.
To maintain our research excellence, we must be able to continue to secure international research funding and enjoy unhindered participation in European consortia and networks in future.
The UK government guarantees to safeguard current and future UK participation in Horizon 2020 in the case of a no-deal Brexit scenario. However, that does not go anywhere near far enough to prevent the huge negative impact such a scenario would have on European research funding and collaborations. I call on the UK government to do more to cover the known gaps in the funding guarantee rather than leaving universities to find their own contingencies for the sudden reduction in European research funding expected in case of a no-deal Brexit.
We firmly believe that the best way to guarantee EU funding and to prevent damage to Scotland’s valued international collaborations and reputation for research excellence is by maintaining our existing relationship with the EU. We will continue to engage with the UK government to ensure that Scotland’s views regarding access to EU funding and programmes are reflected in any contingency planning and negotiations.
We want EU nationals to continue to study or work at universities in Scotland.
While we will keep encouraging them to do, we need an immigration system that takes into account Scotland’s distinct needs.
A major survey last week showed that almost two-thirds of people in Scotland agree the Scottish Government should have devolved responsibility for migration so we can set Scottish policy within the UK immigration system.
We want to have that discussion and negotiation with the UK government as they prepare the upcoming White Paper and Bill on the future immigration system for the UK.
One of my early priorities has been to understand the scale of the challenge that Brexit is creating – the next task is to support the work of the sector to ensure Scotland’s universities remain attractive, competitive, collaborative and diverse, despite the UK government’s damaging Brexit plans.