Speech: Jean calls for visas to let Scots uni graduates stay and work

On Tuesday, the Scottish Parliament debated a Government motion calling for a return of the post-study work visas, once known as the ‘Fresh Talent’ scheme, that allowed overseas students who graduated from Scottish universities to stay and work in Scotland after their degree. Jean supported the motion, and called for Scotland to have control its own immigration policy more generally, so that we can have a welcoming system that meets our needs. The motion passed by 93 votes to nil, with 12 Conservatives abstaining, as did a Labour amendment recognising the work of former First Minister Jack McConnell in creating Fresh Talent.

On this page you can read Jean’s speech, and watch the video of the debate – Jean’s contribution starts at 1:58:35. You can read the full transcript of debate in the Scottish Parliament’s Official Report.

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): This is a timely debate and it is heartening to hear that there is cross-party support for the reintroduction of post-study work visas.

We have heard from all members who have spoken about the contribution that overseas students make, whether cultural, social, economic and educational, but in spite of the reputation of Scottish colleges and universities, we cannot assume that they will keep coming.

Competition in the education sector is tough. Many of our colleges and universities are making greater and greater efforts to attract students from around the globe, even to the extent of changing their names. The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama is now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. That change to the name was not made because people demanded it; it was made to attract students and so that they could better understand the college’s work and its potential.

It is no matter that our universities and colleges are the best or that they are opening branches in many other countries around the globe. It might be that the growing number of such courses will produce graduates there with degrees from the University of Glasgow, the University of Edinburgh or, indeed, the University of the Highlands and Islands.

What will bring those students here? It is not enough to be the best, or to provide good student associations and a welcome. As the institutions know, they need all the support that they can get to maintain or grow the international student community. The post-study work visa is only one good reason to apply to one university over another, but it is perhaps the most important.

Some of the partner colleges in the University of the Highlands and Islands have developed the potential for business experience to follow the course as well as being part of the course. For example, were they allowed to stay after graduation, textiles students in Shetland could access equipment—large industrial knitting machines, for example—to develop better business skills and experience whether or not there was a market for their products.

Manufacturing must be one of the most important areas for us to cover, so the opportunity of getting such experience for the period after graduation is certainly an attractive option, and Scotland has a great deal to offer in that respect.

All the papers that we have received from NUS Scotland or business organisations show cross-sector and cross-party support for the reintroduction of post-study work visas.

I am not sure about the Smith Commission process. It occurs to me, particularly after listening to Lord Lang on the radio this morning, that that process might not be the quickest method by which to put in place the developments that we need. It is incumbent on all members to show that there is real urgency about the issue. The fresh talent initiative has been referred to—all credit to Jack McConnell and the Labour Party for it. It is important to acknowledge that they brought it about, but it is also important to note that if we had the powers over immigration that Scotland needs and clearly deserves, the fresh talent initiative would surely still be in place and we would not need to have this debate.

It was disingenuous of Liam McArthur to try to somehow link all the evidence from academics, businesses and agencies that support the post-study work visas with the danger that not everyone will agree. By way of evidence, he cited BBC Scotland’s evidence that people in Scotland are not unlike people south of the border in their views on immigration.

Liam McArthur: The point that I was trying to make is that the assumption that the population in Scotland takes a radically different approach to immigration from the approach of the population south of the border is not borne out by the BBC survey or by attitude surveys over a number of years. Kenny MacAskill made a fair point about the leadership that we need to show, and it is worth acknowledging that we do not work with a more enlightened or progressive population on the whole.

Jean Urquhart: I thank Liam McArthur for that. In fact, I was just going to refer to Kenny MacAskill’s point that it is up to us to take a lead. It ill behoves us to constantly hark back to what is in some ways a bigger issue. We had a debate on immigration last week, in which we were all very much agreed, and those points were well made by members at the time.

Joan McAlpine talked about MIT, which is a great example of the fact that, where creativity is developed, it can flourish. Scotland needs to have control of immigration if we are to realise our full potential. We must push for the issue to be considered outwith the Smith Commission process. It is a serious and important issue for Scotland and for our colleges. More than that, it is seriously important for the kind of economic development that we want. We have acknowledged that we are talking about thousands of students. Why on earth would we want that talent to be educated in Scotland and then insist that they leave? That cannot be right. I hope that we will push for the issue to be dealt with in the House of Commons and for our case to be made outwith the Smith Commission process.

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