Constitutional secretary Michael Russell has accused the UK government of being “ignorant or incompetent” over the post-Brexit plan, which would see students allowed to stay for just three years of study – despite most Scottish degrees lasting four years.
It came as the SNP also warned Scotland’s reputation as an “open and welcoming” nation would be undermined without action to allow graduates to stay in Scotland after their studies.
But the UK government has insisted its post-Brexit plans are geared towards improving wages and university applications have never been higher.
The prospect of a no-deal Brexit would see EU students only granted “leave to remain” for three years, but Scottish undergraduate “honours” degrees last four years. There are about 13,000 EU students studying north of the Border and 96.4 per cent expect their degree to last more than three years, according to figures compiled by Universities Scotland.
This compares with 35.1 per cent south of the Border. Mr Russell has now penned a letter to Home Secretary Amber Rudd demanding action.
“Scotland has a world-class higher education sector and a long-standing reputation for being amongst the best in the world,” Mr Russell said.
“But Brexit is already the biggest risk to the sector, threatening our ability to attract and retain EU staff and students.
“This damaging policy has many consequences for Scottish institutions, putting them at a competitive disadvantage with regards to undergraduate recruitment.
“It is not clear whether the decision to offer leave for only three years is the result of ignorance about the Scottish system or incompetence, but it is utterly ridiculous that the Home Secretary does not recognise the change required.”
A recent response from Ms Rudd suggested students could apply under a different route after three years and referred only to extended courses such as medicine. This appeared to miss the fact that nearly all degrees offered by Scottish universities are four-year courses.
Ministers are concerned the issue could affect not just the biggest universities, but smaller institutions like the University of the Highlands and Islands where the Scottish Association for Marine Science has 114 undergraduate students of whom 27 are from the EU, along with 15 EU postgraduate research students from countries such as Italy, Germany and Poland.
Mr Russell said: “The UK government is simply ignoring the fact that the majority of undergraduate courses in Scotland last four years, putting Scottish universities at a serious disadvantage when competing to attract EU nationals to study.
“Action from the UK government is needed urgently especially when the risk of a no-deal Brexit is rapidly increasing.”
The issue is allied to wider concerns about overseas students, both from the EU and further afield, being forced to leave Scotland soon after their studies. The Scottish Government fears the wider impact on the country’s population, which is facing a 500,000-person shortfall in the years ahead.
Currently, most non-EU students have to leave within three months of graduation, while the status of students from EU countries is uncertain in light of Brexit – with fears that even fewer skilled graduates will stay and work in Scotland if the country leaves the EU.
Nationalist MSP Tom Arthur said: “We face a huge demographic challenge and need to grow our working-age population to fund our public services – and we need more international students to stay here.”
He added: “Fundamentally, we want Scotland to be open to the world as a welcoming destination for those who want to live, work and study here. But Brexit, and a new Prime Minister fundamentally opposed to further devolution, could set this ambition back substantially.”
A UK government spokesman insisted its future “skills-based” immigration system is designed to drive up wages and productivity across the UK economy, including in Scotland. University student visa applications are at a record high.
“We want to understand the needs of the whole of the UK, which is why we are engaging with the Scottish Government and have discussed the proposals with over 1,500 people from businesses, communities and the education sector so far,” the spokesman said.
“At the same time, the Scottish Government must do more to shoulder their share of the responsibility for making Scotland an attractive place for people to live, work and put down roots.
“Under these proposals, undergrads and postgrads studying at Scottish universities will be able to stay for six months after finishing their degrees to find work.
“ Those who have completed a PhD will be able to stay for a year.”