The Scottish Government minister for higher education said in a Holyrood debate today that it would be “utter madness” if the UK’s departure from the European Union had a detrimental impact on the sector.
He pledged that financial support would also be offered to Scottish students currently at EU universities to continue their studies in Scotland after Brexit.
More than a fifth of teaching and research staff at universities north of the Border are from EU states, according to the Scottish Funding Council, which helps fund colleges and universities.
It has warned that academics from the EU may already be leaving their jobs because of Brexit, based on anecdotal evidence.
The SFC also warned that said any fall in the number of EU students could lead to changes for the courses on offer.
Mr Lochhead said: “Some of the best brains in Europe choose to study and work in Scotland. It is therefore utter madness that the UK Government is willing to damage this success.”
Concerns have been raised that hundreds of Scottish students could suddenly be liable for international student fees, medical care or travel insurance, depending on the manner in which the UK leaves the EU.
Mr Lochhead said: “Depending on if, and how, the UK leaves the EU, UK citizens studying for full degrees in the EU may suddenly find themselves liable for international student fees, medical care, and travel insurance. Our estimates suggest hundreds of students may be affected.
“Facing untenable increases in costs, many of these students – perhaps even the vast majority - may have to come home to Scotland. Their studies cut short. No degree awarded and, of course, their dreams in ruins. All because of a Brexit that Scotland didn’t vote for.
“The Scottish Government has been urgently working with the sector to prepare for students who may return to Scotland and to minimise any disruption to their studies. The Student Awards Agency for Scotland has provided clear information and guidance for students on their website, which will help guide them in transferring to a Scottish institution if that becomes necessary.
“Today, I want to offer reassurance to those students. If you left Scotland to study in the EU, and Brexit means you are forced to give up your studies, we guarantee to provide student support and tuition fees to eligible students so you can study here in Scotland. That is a guarantee you can bank on in these uncertain times.”
Last year the Scottish Government extended the guarantee of free tuition for EU students to those starting in the 2019 to 2020 academic year.
Eligible students will have their fees met for the duration of their studies, even after the UK leaves the EU.
Ministers said this would provide confidence for prospective students as well as the certainty that universities need to plan ahead.
Tory MSP Liz Smith said her party had expressed concerns about the challenges caused by Brexit and welcomed the commitment on the fee status for EU citizens.
Labour MSP Iain Gray said Mr Lochhead was right to criticise the UK government for this chaos.