63.During our inquiry we heard how the covid-19 pandemic has negatively affected university students. They spent most of 2020 and the first months of 2021 working remotely, with universities only permitted to have 5% of their total students on campus for face-to-face teaching, and many have experienced financial hardship, accommodation and wellbeing issues. A NUS Scotland survey of 653 Scottish students published on 14 January 2021 found that: 73% of students are concerned about managing financially during the pandemic, 64% of students say covid-19 has had some impact on their income and 14% of students have used food banks.
64.As Matt Crilly, President of NUS Scotland, pointed out to us, an important factor is that the areas of the economy worst hit by the pandemic—particularly the hospitality sector—are the same areas of the economy that students typically rely on for their part-time work. In September 2020 there were reports of students who were self-isolating “being forced to call security begging for food.” Student-led social media reports at another Scottish university stated that food packages delivered to certain self-isolating students were expired, whilst allergen and religious dietary requirements for other students were ignored. Reports elsewhere at Scottish universities suggested that ‘junk food’ was delivered to self-isolating students.
65.In January 2021, we met with university students as part of an outreach event. Feedback from them included:
“Even before the pandemic there were issues around the cost of living; student loan covers accommodation not food. The impact of the pandemic on this is that there are now even fewer jobs available for students, especially in the hospitality sector.”
“We have had difficulties accessing the computer hardware and software we need in order to complete degrees from home.”
“The disabled student allowance is so hard to access that eligible people are not applying.”
“For many PhD students our funding doesn’t include childcare or maternity leave.”
“The cost of accommodation can be high for places we can’t use and can’t leave. Some universities have offered rebates for accommodation, but this doesn’t help students in private accommodation.”
“Late announcements from the Government on lockdowns and restrictions have made matters worse.”
“Working on laptops on beds is bad in so many aspects. Offered no help with homeworking.”
“Mental health support has a long waiting list. This could be because everyone with a concern goes straight onto the list, rather than better triaging at an earlier stage to ensure that people are being directed to the right services.”
66.Commenting on the transition to digital working, Karen Watt, Chief Executive of the Scottish Funding Council, made the point to us that not all students are digital native and that “alongside whatever shifts we see, [the SFC] have to deal with digital literacy, both in staff and students, and the whole issue of digital poverty. We cannot always assume that everybody has access to broadband, to the hardware and to the connections that are so needed”.
67.Mental health has been flagged to us as a particular area of concern. We have heard that students tend to suffer poor mental health at higher rates than the rest of the adult population. Matt Crilly, President of NUS Scotland, told us that mental health waiting times at Scottish universities were “already too long” pre-covid and he saw “students waiting for months for an appointment to see a mental health specialist.” Research published by NUS Scotland in October 2020 found that, prior to the covid-19 pandemic, 53.86% of students seeking support waited more than one month and 20.84% of students waited more than three months.
68.Now, with the effects of covid-19, NUS Scotland have found that students’ mental health has further declined. For example, students in self-isolation, in halls of residence, trying to come to terms with where they are, what they are trying to do and who they are. Professor Rebecca Lunn, University of Strathclyde, told us that:
With the pressure that the NHS is under, the mental health services in the NHS have shrunk and become almost non-existent in some areas. We have knowledge of people with things like eating disorders where there has been no support whatsoever during this crisis because areas of the NHS have not operated.
69.Alastair Sim, Director of Universities Scotland, told the Committee that the pandemic had also “been an incredibly difficult time for staff”. Dr Vicky Johnson stated that:
[ … ] a lot of the senior management teams [ … ] are needing to spend a huge amount of time on protocols and how to deal with not only student isolation, but also staff are going above and beyond. You may notice, as we are looking more and more exhausted.
Professor Katherine Smith, University of Strathclyde, also noted that academic staff did not have the training or qualifications to provide students with the mental health support they need.
70.Richard Lochhead MSP, Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, told us that:
We have recognised that the pandemic is making life so difficult for many students. [ … ] we have been [ … ] working really hard with our colleges and universities to distribute discretionary hardship funds to make sure those most in need are able to access assistance. We announced £5 million to top up the existing funds just before Christmas , and of course a few days ago we announced a further £30 million, which will be £10 million to help the universities, given that they have already offered students in halls of residences, in most cases, refunds or cancellations, which will lead to loss of income for universities. Also, £20 million will go direct to the institutions for topping up the hardship funds.
In evidence to us about decisions made by the Scottish Government at the start of the university term in 2020, Minister Lochhead stated that: “I reiterate that we apologise to our students for what they went through last September, as we apologised at the time”.
71.In terms of lessons learnt from 2020, the Minister went on to say:
We set up a taskforce [ … ] to look at the hardship issues and hardship funds, and [ … ] we also want to set up another taskforce [ … ] to look at the impact of the lockdown on educational outcomes and the ability to complete the learner journey, because we might have to put extra measures in place. The universities and colleges will have to do this, not the Government per se, but we are working with the agencies and the institutions to see what has to be done to make sure that students who have not been able to have the face-to-face teaching that is necessary for their qualifications are still able to qualify.
72.On 25 February 2021, the Scottish Government announced an additional £4.4million to provide further mental health and wellbeing services to college students and staff as they deal with the impact of the pandemic, but this funding was not made available to university students.
73.Students in Scotland, as with so many groups, faced unprecedented challenges over the course of the pandemic. Whilst we welcome the investments the Scottish Government has made in student wellbeing and mental health during this period, we have heard evidence of structural underfunding that predated the pandemic, long waiting lists and poor triaging of mental health inquiries. This is, in turn, pushing the provision of student mental health support onto academic staff, many of whom report facing challenges of their own, and may not be appropriately trained. The Scottish Government should look again at the provision of mental health services to university students, including by reviewing current triaging processes related to mental health inquiries, to ensure that students are being quickly directed to the appropriate services and support providers. The Scottish Government should also consider whether further investment may be needed in order to shorten mental health support waiting lists for university students (in the same way it has recently done for college students and staff through an additional £4.4 million of mental health support), thereby also reducing pressures on higher education academic staff.
74.Each year more than 58,000 international students from 180 countries study in Scotland. In 2018, this made up about a quarter of the total student population. Professor Chris Pearce, University of Glasgow, told us that international students “enrich the diversity of our campuses”. Professor Nigel Seaton, Abertay University, was “determined to emphasise the value of interactions culturally, in terms of the shared experience of all our students”. Rachel Sandison, University of Glasgow, said that the University of Glasgow was “creating multinational, multicultural learning environments” for their students and that, as a result, international students are of “tremendous benefit to our home students in Scotland”.
75.In the view of Karen Watt, Chief Executive of the Scottish Funding Council, the attractiveness of Scotland’s universities to prospective international students will depend a lot on what’s going on in other counties. In particular she pointed out that the way in which counties deal with the pandemic will affect how people think about their next journeys. Iain Stewart MP, Minister for Scotland, was also of the view that the higher education sector was a “competitive place” as “all universities will want to attract students from right around the world” and so “we have to be on our toes to make sure that we do not just rely on past successes to guarantee future success”. Minister Lochhead told us that:
I think it is very important that we remain an attractive destination for international students, and that means that, following Brexit, we have the challenge of getting that message across to the international community. As Scotland, we are doing what we can and will continue to do that, to promote Scottish brands and the fact that Scotland is an open, welcoming and internationalist country that wants to stay at the heart of Europe and, therefore, we want that to be reflected in students and researchers from Europe, in particular, continuing to come to Scottish institutions so that the best brains in Europe are still attracted to come to work, study and live in Scotland. The UK Government have a role there, because immigration policy, the cost of visas and how Horizon will work going forward will all have a bearing on how attractive Scotland is as a higher education destination.
76.During our inquiry a number of witnesses, including Minister Lochhead, spoke to us about the importance to prospective international students of making sure that immigration policies—which are reserved to the UK Government—are as streamlined and as simple as possible. In addition, the RSE Young Academy of Scotland made the point to us that the perception—not just the reality—of UK immigration policies was also important and that factors like Brexit can play into those perceptions. As background, the ‘Student visa’, which replaced the ‘Tier 4’ student visa, is the primary visa in the UK for visiting international students.
77.The duration of the Student visa depends on course length but, at degree level, can last for up to five years. It usually costs £348 to apply for a Student visa from outside the UK or £475 to extend or switch to a Student visa from inside the UK. On top of visa costs, prospective international students also need to pay a healthcare surcharge of £470 per year. Students in the UK may be able to work whilst on a Student visa, but it depends what subject is being studied and whether the work is in or out of term-time. In the view of Matt Crilly, President of NUS Scotland:
[ … ] we should be striving to make sure that our country is welcoming of international students. [ … ] International students are having to pay up to £2,000 for a visa to come and study here. Something that I think is particularly striking, given the fact we are going through a global health pandemic, is the NHS surcharge going up from £300 to £470 for international students. Things like that make the country a lot less welcoming to international students, who this year in particular are struggling with some elements of the pandemic.
78.The UK Government has also announced, as recommended by our predecessor Committee, a new Graduate visa route—initially piloted in Scotland with great success—which will open for applications from 1 July 2021. This will allow undergraduates to remain in the UK to work for up to two years after successfully completing their studies. This visa route will be unsponsored, meaning that applicants will not need a job offer to apply. In addition, there will be no minimum salary requirements or caps on numbers. After the two years, students will be able to switch onto a Skilled work visa if they find a job which meets certain skill requirements. Matt Crilly said to us that the introduction of the post-study work visa was “incredibly welcome” and “vital”.
79.Our predecessor Committee’s Report from July 2018 on Immigration and Scotland found that:
The UK and Scottish Governments both recognise the importance of reflecting Scottish interests in immigration policy, but it appears that current mechanisms do not adequately enable this to happen. We recommend that the UK Government reviews how the Scotland specific shortage occupation list is agreed, including considering having a Scottish representative involved in the decision-making process. We also recommend that the UK Government reviews how it engages with the devolved administrations on areas of policy—such as immigration—which are reserved but of clear importance to the devolved administrations.
Government departments should usually respond to select committee reports within two months of publication. Approaching three years after publication, we are still awaiting a response.
80.Richard Lochhead MSP, Scottish Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, told us that:
We do work with the UK Government, and the UK Government have been speaking to us. There will be lots more discussions because these are the very early stages of post-Brexit Britain, so we will continue to work with the UK Government on what they can do to support us. [ … ] What is important to me is that the Scottish brand is protected, because we have a very powerful brand for Scottish higher education. It is really important that we maintain the brand. Yes, we are open to working with the UK Government on that, of course.
[ … ] The issue we have discussed so far [with the UK Government] is making sure that Scottish education is attractive, and the immigration system, the visa costs, all these issues are very, very important. Making it easy for researchers and students to come here, and not more expensive compared with going to another European country or elsewhere. That is where we really need the UK Government’s help to make sure that our institutions are seen as attractive.
81.Scottish universities are dependent on immigration decisions made at UK-level but have limited opportunities to influence those decision-making processes. Given that the UK and Scottish Governments both recognise the importance of reflecting Scottish interests in UK immigration policies, the UK Government should submit a full formal response to our predecessor Committee’s Report of 4 July 2018 on Immigration and Scotland, which covered the immigration issues associated with international students in Scotland. It would be particularly helpful if the Government would respond to the parts of the Report which focus on issues affecting students.
82.Erasmus+ is the EU programme for education, training, youth and sport. Between 2014 and 2018 4,846 Erasmus+ grants were awarded to UK organisations, worth around €680 million and Erasmus+ funding has supported more than 128,000 UK participants. The RSE Young Academy of Scotland told us about the benefits of the Erasmus+ scheme:
Around 1 in 3 Erasmus+ trainees are offered a position by the company they trained in. In 2016, 1,600 Scottish staff and students visited European countries on study, training or volunteering visits, with the programme making study abroad opportunities affordable and inclusive, developing the attributes of Scottish global graduates and creating a new brand of ambassadorship. Between 2014 and 2018, Scottish participants comprised 12% of the total UK figure, with Scotland receiving 13% of total Erasmus+ funding in the UK. Less advantaged students benefit tremendously from periods abroad (1 in 3 youth mobility participants comes from a disadvantaged background) and Erasmus+ is committed to supporting widening participation in HE mobility.
83.Rachel Sandison, University of Glasgow, was equally complimentary of Erasmus+ in her evidence, telling us that:
[Erasmus+] has been incredible in terms of what it has allowed us to deliver in partnership, not just within Europe but across the world. [ … ] This is not just around facilitating exchange in Europe, although that is a really important part of Erasmus+, but there is also international credibility. It has allowed us to establish really innovative programmes and projects with international partners, and it has allowed international engagement for staff and students as well.
84.Unlike the EU Horizon Programme, the UK decided not to participate in Erasmus+ following the end of the UK-EU Transition Period. The Government said this was because Erasmus+ was “extremely expensive”. This was despite the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, telling the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union on 17 December 2020, seven days before the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement was reached, that UK participation in Erasmus+ was intended to be included within the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. This was in addition to the Chancellor telling the same Committee in March 2020 that, although he had some value for money and social mobility reservations, it was “certainly the case that, on current trajectories, if we can carry on being part of Erasmus we do see benefits in that.”
85.On 26 December 2020, two days after the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement was reached, the UK Government announced a new scheme for students to study and work abroad that would “replace the UK’s participation in Erasmus+”. Along with the announcement, the Government said:
86.By way of comparison, Erasmus+ funding for 2018 covered 49,000 students in the UK (17,000 outgoing and 32,000 incoming) and over 7,000 staff, at a cost of around €160 million. This means that, for the one year currently funded, the Turing Scheme will be able to fund more than twice the number of places for UK students to study aboard than would have been the case under Erasmus+ (17,000 for Erasmus+ vs 35,000 for Turing).
87.Universities UK had a mixed reaction to the replacement of Erasmus+ with Turing:
While we are obviously disappointed that the UK will no longer be part of the Erasmus scheme, it is significant that the Government has committed to a generously funded scheme despite current economic pressures. The new Turing scheme is a fantastic development [ … ] It is a good investment in the future of students—not only those in universities but in schools and colleges who will also benefit.
A priority will be working with international counterparts on the funding of inbound students, who won’t be covered by the scheme. Inbound exchange students contributed £440 million to the UK economy in 2018 and there are real concerns about whether the UK will see a decrease outside of the Erasmus scheme.
88.In relation to the impact on Scotland, Royal Society of Edinburgh Fellows told us that:
The UK leaving the Erasmus+ programme is regrettable and will adversely affect both students and staff through the loss of two-way mobility. This impact will be felt particularly keenly in Scotland due to the higher take up of the scheme relative to population compared to other nations of the UK. While the Erasmus scheme is highly valuable in terms of enhancing the skills and capacity of all students who participate, regardless of discipline, it has a particular importance for linguistic and cultural capacity that offers an essential resource to the Scottish economy and society in a globalised world.
[ … ] the Turing scheme is not a genuine exchange programme comparable with Erasmus+, with greater numbers leaving the UK under the Turing scheme than will enter to participate in its Higher Education institutions. The Turing scheme will require long-term commitment and financial support from the UK Government to provide certainty to institutions, staff and students, especially when Erasmus+ has operated as a seven-year programme.
89.As pointed out by both Universities UK and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, it is not currently envisaged that the Turing Scheme will fund overseas students coming to the UK, as Erasmus+ did. As outlined earlier in the Chapter (paragraph 74), international students play an important role in the education and cultural experience that UK/Scottish students gain whist at university. A reduction in international students will also mean that UK universities, including those in Scotland, will miss out on an important source of income. It has been reported that withdrawal from Erasmus+ will cost UK education intuitions more than £200 million per year. Inward student placements also contribute significantly, as consumers, to local economies.
90.As reflected on by Rachel Sandison, University of Glasgow, another aspect of the Turing Scheme is that it is not currently envisaged that it will fund staff mobility, like Erasmus+ did. She told us that:
Although we have had 3,000 students from the University of Glasgow who have been able to go on exchanges since 2014 [through Erasmus+], we have also had a similar number of staff who have benefited from a period of time overseas learning from colleagues in a different environment, which has been fantastic. To have that not encapsulated within a new framework would bring real challenges to the sector.
91.Mary Senior, University and College Union Scotland, had concerns about the “temporary nature” of the Turing Scheme. She noted that:
Turing is only for one year. It’s going to be far harder to build relationships with other institutions when you don’t know what’s going to happen with the scheme after 2022.
92.On 28 December 2020 Richard Lochhead MSP, Scottish Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, expressed his “profound disappointment” at the UK Government’s decision to withdraw from the Erasmus. He described the move as “a huge blow”, said that the Scottish Government would explore “alternative options” and described the Turing Scheme as a “watered down and less well funded version of Erasmus” as “it’s not even an exchange program because there is no support for visits to Scotland”. He reflected that students in Northern Ireland will however still to be given access to Erasmus+, due to their different EU exit arrangements.
93.In oral evidence Minister Lochhead also expressed concerns to us about the UK Government’s motivations behind the decision to withdraw from Erasmus+:
I am suspicious that the UK Government felt the Erasmus scheme was symbolic of close ties with Europe. Therefore, Brexit is Brexit, and they unfortunately committed this vandalism by removing us from Erasmus to go for the alternative global scheme because it was too European. I was unaware, up until the UK Government walked away from Erasmus, that there were any problems with Erasmus. We were assured that the No. 1 priority, up until the last moment, was full participation in Erasmus. If it was a value for money issue, surely they knew that over the last few years. They must have worked that out, I would have thought, and estimated how much it would have cost us to maintain participation in Erasmus.
94.In terms of improvements that Minister Lochhead wanted to see to the Turing Scheme, he made similar points to us as many in the higher education section, namely that it should be expanded with a longer-term budget, include other sectors and should facilitate inward, rather than just outward mobility. In relation to collaboration with the UK Government, his view was that “despite four years of meetings”, the Turing Scheme is “going to be imposed on Scotland via the Internal Market Bill”. He said that policies that impact on devolution should have input from the Scottish Parliament, and involve the Scottish Government, and he did not feel that had happened in this instance.
95.The Welsh Government is similarly disappointed that the UK is no longer participating in the Erasmus+ scheme and, as a result, has begun developing its own scheme called the ‘New International Learning Exchange’ to “fill the gaps Turing leaves”. A fundamental principle of the programme will be reciprocity: a two-way exchange. Whilst the UK Government has allocated £110m for the first year of the Turing Scheme (UK-wide), the Welsh Government is allocating £65m between 2022 and 2026. According to the Welsh Government, students and staff across universities, further education, adult education, youth work settings and schools will be able to “benefit from international exchanges in a similar way to the opportunities that flowed from Erasmus+, not just in Europe but also further afield”.
96.In relation to Erasmus+, Iain Stewart MP, Minister for Scotland, told us that that he “fully acknowledge the benefits that that scheme brought” and that:
The possibility of staying part of Erasmus was a central part of the negotiations all the way through. I am not saying you have alleged, but others have alleged that we ruled it out from the start because it was European and, therefore, bad. We took an objective look at the cost. [ … ] the judgment that was made by the negotiators was that it did not represent best value for money.
97.In the Government’s view the UK “could achieve the same benefits [as Erasmus+] with Turing”, but could also improve upon it by “looking at the global reach of it to widen participation”. Minister Stewart told us that it was about:
[ … ] how we extend the benefits, reaching Commonwealth countries, the Americas, the Far East, which Erasmus did not cover, widening the participation and having a nimbler scheme. [ … ] We also need that greater flexibility to underpin many of the links that universities already have outside Erasmus that Turing will be able to bolster. I think we have a product here that will achieve the same benefits but in a more cost-effective way and extend the advantages that we want to see.
98.In relation to the importance of inward, rather than just outward exchanges, Minister Stewart said, “I absolutely get the value of these exchanges in both directions” and:
In terms of students coming here, what we are also working on—and Scottish universities have a representation in this—is the International Education Strategy, which will conclude in the summer. That is looking at deepening the various partnerships that come in both directions.
He also said that the International Education Strategy, led by Sir Steve Smith, would not only look at the inbound student element, but also international marketing and attraction, and inbound researchers.
99.Looking ahead to future years of the Turing Scheme, and collaboration with the devolved administrations, Rebecca Hackett, Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland, told us that:
[ … ] the Turing programme [ … ] is a flexible and iterative programme. It has received a year of funding already, but the Department for Education is already working very intensively with the devolved administrations to ensure that the scheme does deliver on what it is seeking to deliver and can evolve to address any issues. Clearly, it is going to be a different stage in year one with all of the impacts of covid and so on, but we are aiming for it to receive the same brand recognition as Erasmus+ in the longer term and we will be working hard with the devolved administrations to ensure that.
100.Until 17 December 2020, one week before the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement was reached, the UK Government was reassuring Parliament that UK participation in Erasmus+ was intended to be included within the UK-EU deal. Given that Erasmus+ disproportionally benefited Scotland compared to other parts of the UK, we are disappointed that no agreement on this could be reached. Nevertheless, we support the Government’s Turing Scheme, especially that it should benefit 35,000 UK students per year (compared to 17,000 under Erasmus+), and that it will open international opportunities wider than just the EU. We look forward to working with UK Government on this and the International Education Strategy.
101.We note with regret however that the Turing scheme will not—as currently envisaged—support inward placements to the UK. As the Government recognises, as well as providing Scottish universities and local economies with an important income source, inward placements support the cultural education and experience of UK students in a way that is difficult to replicate by other means. They also support Scottish universities’ internationalisation agenda by promoting them on a global platform and building international networks that can last a lifetime. We also regret that there is currently no long-term funding commitment beyond year-one of the Turing Scheme to the principle of international student exchange. Subject to positive year-one results from the Turing Scheme, we recommend not only that the scheme continue with at least the same level of funding in future years, but that it be expanded to incorporate the funding of international student and academic staff placements to the UK.
102.Since the announcement that the UK will no longer participate in the EU Erasmus+ programme following the end of the Transition Period, both the Scottish Government and Scottish academics have been lobbying for Scotland to remain in Erasmus+ independently from the UK. Minister Richard Lochhead informed us that the Scottish Government was exploring options with the EU for Scotland to continue to participate in the Erasmus scheme. The UK Government was opposed to Scotland having any formal involvement in the scheme, though Mariya Gabriel, the EU Commissioner for Education, and many MEPs, were keen on the idea.
103.Similarly, academics in Scotland have backed proposals to look at ways in which Scotland can continue an association with Erasmus+. It has been reported that a motion calling for a working group to examine options to achieve this received support during the University and College Union’s Congress in March 2021. Mary Senior, University and College Union Scotland, said that moves were underway to look at how a relationship could be preserved, possibly taking advantage of possibilities within the EU scheme for outward mobility to countries that are not official partners and using Turing money to maintain reciprocity.
104.Rebecca Hackett, Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland, told us however that:
The European Commission has confirmed, following the decision of the UK Government not to participate in the next programme, that there was not an option for Scotland or Wales to join. I think there has been a clear view from the European Commission that it needs to be the member state applying or the third country applying rather than individual parts of a country.
105.When asked what position of the UK Government would be if the European Commission changed its mind on Scottish participation in Erasmus+, Minister Stewart said:
My point would be that Scotland would be paying twice: first for the Turing Scheme and then for Erasmus. I do not think it is a nationwide scheme, and I think we are at a very early stage with Turing. When the full benefit and the detail of it is there and comes into practice—of course, we also have the interruption at the moment with the covid situation. It is very difficult to assess one and the other when students are not able, under any scheme, to properly travel. Of course, Turing can be evaluated in the fullness of time and could evolve into something else, but the ambitions for it, I think, will both capture the benefits of Erasmus and extend them in the ways that I have indicated.
106.The Scottish Government has indicated a desire to remain in the Erasmus+ programme. Should they decide to continue down this path and be willing to cover the associated costs, and should the EU consent to Scottish participation, the UK Government should not block this endeavour (at least until such a point that the Turing Scheme can facilitate inward exchanges).
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