The case of Scotland’s missing international strategy and Erasmus replacement

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The government, led by the Scottish Nationalist Party, said it would develop a new strategy for international education to “promote Scotland’s education offer globally, increase the number of international students, and maintain our links with the EU”, in the 2021/22 parliamentary year.

It said a reciprocal Scottish Education Exchange Programme – similar to the Taith program in Wales – would “support the international mobility of staff and learners”. Leaders also said the devolved parliament would “work to re‑secure Scotland’s access to the Erasmus + Programme”.

It is not clear why the two initiatives have been delayed – they were already behind schedule before Nicola Sturgeon quit as first minister in February. But, after the Scottish government reversed a decision to allocate £46m to colleges and universities “without warning” on May 3, there is pressure on the government – and its new leader Humza Yousaf – to release a plan on how it plans to fund higher education in Scotland.

Speaking on Good Morning Scotland on May 3, director of Universities Scotland, Alastair Sim, said the organisation was “very disappointed and obviously quite puzzled at this quite sudden abstraction of the resource”.

“We were looking forward to being able to invest in a way that would meet students’ needs. We are seeing students need a lot more help after the pandemic… We are investing so much money in trying to meet increased welfare and teaching needs,” he said.

The funding could also have helped Scottish institutions in their research competitiveness, which he said has been eroded as “research funding [has been] cut from Scottish government by 36% since 2014/15”.

“The Scottish government, they don’t really say it out loud, but I think they really are betting everything on growth in international students and that is reaching a point of enormous geopolitical risk,” he said.

“Scottish government is essentially forcing us to bet everything on one number on the roulette wheel”

A spokesperson from Universities Scotland told The PIE that the organisation is looking forward to the imminent publication of the Scottish government’s International Education Strategy, which it hopes “will recognise the significant benefits, socially and economically, that international education contributes to Scotland”.

“To cross-subsidise the underfunding of Scottish students and research, we now have more money coming in from international students than we do from teaching Scottish domicile students. That builds enormous risks that if there is another war, difficulties in relations with China, if UK government restricts immigration policy, this could collapse,” Sim said.

“By choosing to underfund the core teaching of Scottish students and choosing to underfund the core research infrastructure, Scottish government is essentially forcing us to bet everything on one number on the roulette wheel, and that’s got huge risks.”

HESA statistics from 2021/22 show that of the £1.59bn Scottish higher education generated in tuition fees, £1.03bn came from non-EU students. In 2020/21, non-EU students contributed £867m in tuition fees.

Sim appealed to authorities to prioritise investment in further and higher education in the next Scottish budget if the government is serious about Scotland “being a high skills and an innovation led economy”.

The government has said it is facing the most challenging financial environment since devolution and very difficult decisions across portfolios have to be made.

Minister for Higher and Further Education since 2023, Graeme Dey – who welcomed Germany’s Parliamentary State Secretary to the Federal Minister for Education and Research Jens Brandenburg to Scotland in May – was asked recently asked in Scottish Parliament about educational exchanges with Europe.

Dey highlighted that as a result of Brexit, Scottish universities have seen a 64% reduction in numbers of European students, which has “undoubtedly impacted on our universities”.

“The Scottish government welcomes the contribution that European and other international students make to our higher education sector, as well as to our society, our culture and our economy. They add diversity,” he said on April 27.

“Any proposals from the UK government to add more restrictive visa requirements for European and other international students would be deeply damaging to our world-class university sector.”

Following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, the Scottish government said in December 2020 it had “sought repeated assurance that the UK government will prioritise continued association” to the Erasmus program.

“The loss of Erasmus is huge blow. This is simply unacceptable and we are looking at alternative options,” the then Scottish universities minister Richard Lochhead said at the time.

In a statement to The PIE, Universities Scotland added that since Brexit ended access to Erasmus+, the Welsh government has delivered its two-way mobility Taith scheme, to the value of £65 million over four years, which is “thriving”.

“Universities will continue to offer students the opportunity to study abroad but this could be made significantly easier with a Scottish scheme,” the organisation said.

In February of this year, Jamie Hepburn – who is now minister for Independence in the Scottish National Party government – reiterated that the Scottish government remains committed to Erasmus+ and is creating a Scottish Education Exchange Programme “to support participants from across Scotland’s education system” in the interin.

 

Ministers were previously accused of “shelving plans” for the program in 2022, after admitting there was no timetable for consulting on it.

“This is a program for government commitment and will help maintain Scotland’s place as an outward looking, internationally connected destination for work and study,” Hepburn said in February.

“We are engaging with stakeholders from across the education spectrum, including higher and further education, schools (including early years and care), vocational education and training, youth work, adult education and sports. We are listening to the sectors and the needs of their learners and staff in order to ensure we create a program fit for Scotland.”

This is a statement the Scottish government repeated when asked by The PIE when the strategy and information on SEEP will be released.

“In practice, we now have international fees subsidising Scottish students – that carries a lot of geopolitical risk”

Universities Scotland noted that there is a “bigger issue around the unsustainable funding model that Scottish universities currently operate under”.

“In practice, we now have international fees subsidising Scottish students. That carries a lot of geopolitical risk and one we would like to see the Scottish government remedy by funding the sector sustainably,” the spokesperson concluded.

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