The Student Immigration System in Scotland

Written evidence submitted by Scottish Trades Union Congress

1.0 Introduction

1.1 The STUC is Scotland’s trade union centre. Its purpose is to co-ordinate, develop and articulate the views and policies of the trade union movement in Scotland; reflecting the aspirations of trade unionists as workers and citizens.

1.2 The STUC represents over 652,000 working people and their families throughout Scotland. It speaks for trade union members in and out of work, in the community and in the workplace. Our affiliated organisations have interests in all sectors of the economy, including higher and further education. Through Scottish Union Learning we represent learners in the workplace, and our representative structures are constructed to take account of the specific views of women members, young members, Black/minority ethnic members, LGBT members, and members with a disability, as well as retired and unemployed workers.

1.3 The STUC welcomes the opportunity to contribute to this consultation on the student immigration system.

2.0 General Comments

2.1 Migration is an important feature of the Scottish economy and migrant workers and learners have a lot to offer, adding their knowledge and experience to the Scottish workforce and enriching our universities. The overall effect of migration on the Scottish economy is positive and migrants are valuable members of our community. It is our view that Scotland should promote migration patterns where people settle here permanently. Migration in this form can help to rebalance the age distribution and provides a greater opportunity for migrants to contribute to the Scottish economy.

2.2 The STUC is deeply sceptical of the value of placing a limit or tighter controls on the number of students entering the UK from non-EU countries. The current points based system for immigration already places stringent controls on the numbers of people entering the country and places rules on how long students can stay in this country after graduation. We are, therefore, unsure why the Government has come to the conclusion that further restrictions are necessary.

2.3 While we recognise the substantial financial contribution that international students make to Scottish universities, we also believe these students should not simply be seen in terms of the fees they pay. It is important to recognise the role that international students play in the life of our universities in Scotland. They enrich the experience of domestic students and they help create a truly international feel for Scottish institutions.

2.4 We are concerned that the changes to the visa system proposed by the UK Border Agency do not consider the needs of the UK economy, nor appreciate the valuable role that international students play. Rather this policy is driven by a general desire to be seen to control migration, playing to fears that may exist around immigration among the general public. It is our view that this policy uses the current economic difficulties and workers’ and domestic students’ genuine fears and sense of insecurity to introduce policies that will bring little benefit for our society.

3.0 The aim of the Government’s immigration policy

3.1 The Government’s stated aim is to reduce the level of immigration from 100,000s to 10,000s. For this reason they are making a range of changes to the visa system to prevent both migrant workers and students entering this country. The STUC is unsure why this policy is necessary or why immigration needs to be reduced.

3.2 There are many myths about the effects of migration on the labour market and on native workers. For example, many believe that migrant workers take jobs from the local population and that they have a negative effect on wages. However, a study carried out by the TUC in 2007 looking at the economics of migration found that overall levels of employment and wages are slightly higher as a result of immigration, and migrant workers pay more in taxes than the value of the public services they receive. This study also found that where problems do arise, it is often the result of unscrupulous employers taking the chance for exploitation offered by an influx of poorly informed and organised workers allowing them to undercut more principled employers.

3.3 The role that international students play in our education system is well understood and acknowledged. Even within the UK Border Agency’s consultation the Government is quick to acknowledge the positive role that students play in financing universities. They therefore, attempt to make some kind of divide between genuine students attending genuine courses and ‘bogus students’. It is our view that this divide is false, and in reality there is a contradiction in the Government’s stated aims to, on the one hand, limit the numbers of students entering Britain and, on the other hand, maintain a competitive and world class higher education sector which attracts the brightest and best from around the world.

3.4 The Government’s visa changes are already having an effect on the quality of education in Scotland’s universities. The temporary limit that was put in place last year for Tier 1 and Tier 2 migration resulted in negative consequences. For example, universities had a reduced number of sponsorship certificates at Tier 2 and therefore could only cover existing staff whose visas were expiring. This restricted their ability to make competitive offers to new staff that they were trying to attract from around the world.  This is of real detriment to the university’s reputation and also risks lowering their diversity and the quality of their teaching and research compared to others in the global market place.

3.5 Given these negative consequences the STUC is unsure why there was no analysis of the effects that the temporary cap was having when deciding the level of the permanent limit. We are also unsure why the Government now intends to further impact on universities’ global competitiveness by restricting foreign students. These steps all add to the impression that this policy is being pursued for political reasons despite evidence suggesting that its overall effects are negative.

4.0 Economic Consequences for Scotland

4.1 In recent years the Scottish Government has prioritised attracting migrants to come and live and work in Scotland. A large part of this policy focused around the fresh talent initiative which allowed non- EU students that had attended Scottish Universities to work in Scotland for two years after graduation. This policy was progressive and helped to attract foreign students to Scottish institutions. It also contributed to stemming the falling population in Scotland and helped turn the tide on the ‘brain drain’ which for too long had been a feature of the Scottish economy. The fresh talent initiative was a good example of the Westminster Government and the Scottish Government working together to build different procedures for Scotland than the rest of the UK and therefore to ensure a positive outcome that met the specific needs of Scotland.

4.2 The STUC is concerned that the proposals by the UK border agency to close the Tier 1 Post Study Work route will be detrimental to the Scottish economy. It seems absurd that we would deliberately close off access for highly qualified people, who have lived in Scotland and are settled within the community to work and contribute to our society. The STUC simply does not agree with the stated policy aim in the consultation document that student visas should be a form of temporary migration. We believe that Scotland should promote migration patterns where people settle here permanently. Migration in this form can help to rebalance the age distribution and provides a greater opportunity for migrants to contribute to the Scottish economy.

4.3 Furthermore the contribution that international students make to the Scottish economy while studying is high. Not only do they provide funding for Scottish universities they also spend money in our economy. In this way foreign students are often seen as economic assets to a country and are therefore sought after in the global market place. We are concerned that changes in the visa process, including the removal of the Post Study Work route will make Scotland less competitive in global terms and will ultimately diminish the numbers of students coming here to study.

5.0 Consequences for Students of changing immigration rules

5.1 As well as contributing to our economy directly, international students also create links between Scotland and other countries and carry back to their own nation a positive view of Scotland as a place to live, visit or work. In this way international students are valuable ambassadors for Scotland and it is therefore important that we encourage in them to have a positive view of the country by being welcoming and treating them fairly through our immigration system.

5.2 The STUC is very concerned that some of the proposed changes around the ability to work or the ability to bring dependants into the country will lower the sense of fairness that foreign students have about our nation’s systems. We are concerned that changes in the ability to work will make it difficult for students to support themselves while studying and will also make studying in the UK impossible for many students. This will be a particular barrier for students from developing countries, where savings earned in their own country are unlikely to cover the cost of living in Britain. We are also concerned that preventing people from bringing dependants with them or changing the rules on dependants working, makes Scotland a less attractive place to study and therefore lowers our competitiveness in the global market place. Equally if enforced it disrupts the family life of students with dependants who choose to study in this country.

6.0 The role of Colleges

6.1 Some students choose to study at below degree courses in order to adapt to a new educational system before enrolling on a degree level course, this has both benefits for the students and their prospective university who'll find it easier to engage them in their studies if they are already familiar with the education system. There are also many students who use college courses as a way to improve their level of English and to familiarise themselves with Scotland before committing to a longer degree course. The proposals put forward by the UK boarder agency will discourage such students from coming to Scotland and therefore will prevent Scotland from attracting the brightest and best students for our universities. This issue also demonstrates that degree level students cannot simply be carved out from college students and changes in Tier 4 visas for below degree level students will have knock on effects for university admissions.

6.2 Many genuine students are also interested in studying below degree courses to get valuable qualifications from the UK. Stopping all but few colleges from offering these courses to international students is a huge blow to the sector and bars many students from studying in this country without any reason. The issue of ‘bogus colleges’ is not one we recognise in Scotland. Colleges here provide a decent level of teaching and learning for their students. Foreign students attending these colleges gain skills and experience in Scotland and in our view contribute positively to the life of the college.

7.0 Options for Scotland

7.1 In the discussion and debate around the considerations of the Calman Commission a degree of consensus emerged between the business community, trade unions and others. Whilst most would not advocate a separate immigration system for Scotland, there was a desire to optimise the potential for reflecting Scotland’s different approach to migration and economic needs. The STUC recommends that serious consideration should be given to what can be done under the existing legislation and intergovernmental processes to deliver this aim.

March 2011