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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Jean backs Orcadian woman’s call to end charity tax breaks for private schools

Orkney resident Ashley Husband Powton, a postgraduate student at the University of the Highlands and Islands, has petitioned the Scottish Parliament to remove charitable status from private schools. She presented 310 signatures in support of the change to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee on Tuesday 28 October.

VIDEO: Ashley Husband Powton answers questions on her petition from MSPs.
VIDEO: Ashley Husband Powton answers questions on her petition from MSPs.

Jean has congratulated Ashley on her campaign and her composure in the face of hostile questioning from some members of the committee.

As charities, Scotland’s fee-paying schools enjoy an 80% reduction on non-domestic rates. The discount cut the tax liability of Fettes College in Edinburgh, whose alumni include Tony Blair, from £209,139 to £41,828 in 2011, while the council-run Wester Hailes high school in one of the poorest parts of the city paid its £261,873 tax bill in full.

Following Ms Husband Powton’s evidence, MSPs agreed to ask the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) to attend a future meeting of the Petitions Committee to answer questions on their interpretation of the charities rules.

Jean said:

“I congratulate Ashley on creating this petition, and especially on calmly facing down some very discourteous questioning at the Parliament.

“Private schools are one of the ways that privilege and inequality is entrenched in the UK. They enable wealthy parents to effectively buy access to the top universities and the top jobs, ensuring that the people born at the top of society are likely to stay there.

“Private schools’ impact on equal opportunity and social mobility is bad enough, without ordinary people being asked to subsidise them through tax breaks intended to support real charities.

“It is claimed that the schools deserve charitable status because they provide bursaries to less wealthy students. But Fettes, as an example, provides fees assistance to only 10% of its pupils, and only 6 pupils pay no fees at all. The overwhelming majority of privately-educated children are there because their parents can afford to pay up top £30,000 per year in fees.

“Meanwhile state schools, which genuinely exist to serve every child, get no special treatment and are expected to pay their taxes in full.

“Private schools should not be treated as charities. I look forward to hearing OSCR’s response to Ashley’s petition, but if they are not satisfactory I’m sure her campaign will continue, and she can count on my support.”

Anyone can bring a petition to the Scottish Parliament. Find out more about public petitions here.

Jean’s call to save geology in schools

A geology student uses a compass-clinometer on a geology field trip.
A geology student uses a compass-clinometer on a geology field trip.
Photo: www.flickr.com/photos/benbowenphotos.

Calling Scotland “the birthplace of geology” and praising the work of Scotland’s two UNESCO Geoparks in Shetland and the Northwest Highlands, Jean has joined calls to save the Higher qualification in geology, due to be axed by the Scottish Qualifications Authority in 2015.

Jean added her signature to a letter by Willie Rennie MSP to Education Secretary Michael Russell, urging him to delay the scrapping of Higher Geology.

Although an ‘Earth Science’ Higher is planned to eventually replace it, jean raised concerns of a gap in tuition of the subject if Geology is axed now.

Jean said:

“Scotland is the home of geology, the place where James Hutton invented the science and proved the earth is ever-changing. Geology is vital to our future too, from developing our energy economy to dealing with the consequences of climate change.

“In Scotland perhaps more than anywhere, geology is a vital part of so many careers in so many industries. But as the next generation grows up in an age of environmental challenges, they also need to be informed citizens, who understand how our planet functions and are able to take the big decisions to secure our future.

“We should be encouraging many more pupils to choose geology, not taking it out of schools altogether while the new qualification is developed. Axing Higher Geology now is premature at best.”

Jean highlighted Government support for the Geoparks as examples of success in developing the educational and recreational potential of our internationally important geology, saying:

“Our Geoparks honour two of the world’s most scientifically important and visually stunning landscapes, and do brilliant work developing their educational and tourist potential.

“Shetland’s complicated fault lines mean that you can see rock types otherwise found scattered across the North of Scotland, side by side. Geologically, Shetland is the Highlands in miniature and a visit to the Geopark is a whirlwind tour of billions of years of Scotland’s history.

“The North-West Highlands are home to the oldest rocks in Britain. At 3 Billion years old, some are well over half the age of the planet. The Moine Thrust that runs right through the NW Highlands Geopark was instrumental in proving that the continents are moving – a debate that wasn’t settled until the 1960s.

“The Scottish Government’s recent support of £280,000 over two years secured their status as full UNESCO Geoparks, and recognised the importance of geology to Scotland. I hope we can recognise that in our schools too.”

The full letter is below:

Dear Mr Russell

We are writing to you regarding the Scottish Qualification Authority’s (SQA) decision to remove higher geology from the qualifications that are available to Scottish school pupils. The current higher qualification in geology is due to be scrapped in 2015, leaving a huge void in the teaching of geology in Scottish secondary schools. A focus group of school teachers, academics and industry representatives (Earth Science Education Scotland), coordinated by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS), have proposed the development of a new higher in earth science which would cover the wide range of topics that modern earth sciences currently spans, and that would typically be offered in Year 6. As outlined below, there is a demonstrated demand for earth science teaching by schools, universities and industry. We urge you to promote the development of a new earth science higher qualification, and to extend the life of higher geology until the new higher course is prepared.

We are aware that SQA and your office believe that the number of pupils studying higher geology is not large enough to support running higher geology because the numbers have declined over the years. We argue this is almost entirely due to the fact that no teachers have been trained in support of the subject since 1985, and that schools have never been encouraged to rank geology as an important subject. The Earth Science Education Scotland (ESES) focus group know of many schools where demand is high and teachers wish to offer higher geology, but the head teachers have not permitted it to run. However, ESES also knows that there is a huge demand and interest in a new earth science qualification that is on par with other science subjects and encompasses the broad range of topics that earth science now spans. A recent survey of more than 130 teachers, carried out by the University of St Andrews, found that 80% would consider offering this new qualification given the opportunity and appropriate support. According to a recent article in the TESS (April 18, 2014), SQA may have begun to recognise this, as Dr Gill Stewart, SQA Director of Qualifications Development, is currently looking to determine the demand for an earth science qualification.

Support for a new higher also comes from industry, with organisations such as Oil & Gas UK recommending the introduction of this qualification, which they believe would help to address the serious and well documented skills shortage. Investment in the UK oil and gas industry is at an all-time high, with up to 24 billion barrels of oil and gas yet to be recovered. This has the potential to provide energy security to the UK for decades to come and jobs for young people in Scotland. As such, the discipline of geology is absolutely vital in aiding the industry to unlock the potential of the resource, while also aiding industry to maintain its position as the largest industrial investor in the UK and a globally recognised centre of engineering and manufacturing excellence.

The level of interest in earth sciences is also demonstrated through the work of the Earth Science Education Unit (ESEU) and initiatives such as GeoBus, partially funded by industry, which provides support to teachers who want to cover geology content but have no resources or background to teach the subject confidently.

The level of interest and demand for more earth sciences in the curriculum can be demonstrated with over 24,000 pupils in 160 different Scottish secondary schools have been involved in earth science workshops with GeoBus since 2012 alone.

We are aware that SQA believes that geology and earth science content is being moved into other science subjects within Curriculum for Excellence. This, however, is not the case. ESES has found that geology content within the new geography curriculum is being diminished and the earth science content in the new curricula for Biology, Physics and Chemistry also shows a distinct lack of breadth and depth. A limited number of themes taught across a range of subjects will result in slight exposure to earth sciences, but the connectivity of topics across the different subject areas will be lost. Importantly, the new science curriculum will not equip students to understand the behaviour of the solid earth, natural resources and exploration, energy challenges, the hydrocarbon industry and geological climate change.

We see an earth science qualification as a unique opportunity to consolidate on the learning achieved within the pure science subjects by studying a more applied science subject that underpins the economy and tackles some of the most difficult questions of our time: present and future energy challenges, new sources of natural resources, and climate change. In this context, we want to develop informed citizens who have at least a basic understanding of how the planet functions and where resources come from. By offering higher earth science in the final year of secondary school, pupils have an opportunity to additionally develop skills training (including outdoor fieldwork), research experience, some independent learning and careers awareness prior to leaving school.

A common response of SQA is that higher geology is not required for entry to a university degree course. This is true, because there are hardly any schools offering the subject in Scotland and so this would unfairly disadvantage pupils. As stated above, getting pupils to take the subject at university isn’t the sole aim of a higher in earth science. It is worth noting, however, that in 2010, 45% of all entrants into earth science degree subjects in England and Wales held an A level or higher in geology. Clearly, offering the qualification at secondary school influences how many pupils will consider it as a degree course at university. In addition, while 33% of the pupils sitting A level geology in 2013 are female, about 50% of the student cohort in earth science courses at university are female; it is a route into science for women.

We call on you as Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning to do everything in your power to delay the removal of higher geology until a new earth science qualification can be established. With the support of teachers, academic institutions and the energy industry, the demand for this new qualification cannot go unnoticed, nor should the future students of geology be held back due to short sightedness on the part of the SQA.

Music Therapy: Pledging My Support

Every week in Parliament, different charities, voluntary organisations and other groups have the opportunity to host a stall by the Members’ Block or the Members’ Lobby to discuss issues with MSPs. Two weeks ago, it was the turn of the Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy in Scotland group to highlight the tremendous work they do to MSPs.
Music Therapy is vital for many people, whatever their condition or illness. Music Therapy helps people to take their first steps in engaging or re-engaging with the world around them, and the work of groups like Nordoff Robbins changes the lives of people with dementia, autism, learning disabilities and other complex conditions by enabling them to connect and communicate. They currently help nearly 400 people a week, and although they don’t currently have a centre in the Highlands and Islands, their clinics in Broxburn, Maryhill, Crosshill and Dundee and their work in schools, hospices and other settings across Scotland are really to be commended.
I pledged to help them in any way I can in the future- if you’d like to learn more, visit visit http://www.nordoffrobbinsscotland.org.uk or call 01506 239 578 .

Jean at the Nordoff Robbins stall in Parliament
Jean at the Nordoff Robbins stall in Parliament

Motion: UHI Appointment of Gaelic Research Professor Dr Conchúr Ó Giollagáin

Motion Number: S4M-09537
Lodged By: Jean Urquhart
Date Lodged: 28/03/2014

Title: UHI Appointment of Gaelic Research Professor Dr Conchúr Ó Giollagáin

Motion Text:
That the Parliament welcomes the appointment of Dr Conchúr Ó Giollagáin as Gaelic Research Professor at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) and director of Soillse, the national research network for the maintenance and revitalisation of Gaelic language and culture, which is effective from April 2014; understands that Dr Ó Giollagáin has an international reputation in language planning and minority language culture and sociology; further understands that, as director of Soillse, Dr Ó Giollagáin will lead a team of four research fellows, one lecturer and 10 PhD students in their research; notes that his research will cover the intergenerational transmission of Gaelic practice and policy in Gaelic medium education and the assessment of government policies on the revitalisation of the language; considers this appointment to demonstrate the commitment of UHI to Gaelic language and culture and the growing reputation of UHI as a centre of academic excellence; further considers the work of academics, the Scottish Government and other partners in supporting Gaelic language and culture to be of paramount importance to the Highlands and Islands and to Scotland, and looks forward to working with Dr Ó Giollagáin and others in support of the Gaelic language and culture.

Jean’s bid to protect children’s rights

Cartoon of a child leaning against a stack of huge books. On the books is the message "You have the right to an education." Image by Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young PeopleJean has proposed an inquiry into how the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) could be enshrined in Scots law. She’ll be arguing for the amendment to the Children and Young People Bill in its final debate at Holyrood tomorrow.

If backed by MSPs, Jean’s amendment will require the government to set up a body to investigate whether the UNCRC should become part of Scots law, as is already the case with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The UNCRC demands that decisions about children always put their best interests first. It enshrines a number of specific rights, including the right to an education, the right to a family, and the right to be protected from violence.

Jean said:

“We’re currently engaged in a debate about the kind of country we want to be, and what kind of future we want for all our citizens. I think we should aspire to be the kind of country that always puts our children – our future – first.

“Enshrining children’s rights in Scots law would be a powerful protection for our kids, and a bold signal of our ambition to make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up in.

“We have the opportunity here to be a leading nation, not only in the UK but also in the world. By starting on the journey towards a truly child-centred society, I have no doubt we’ll give other countries the inspiration to travel with us.”

The United Kingdom ratified the Convention in 1991, as have 192 other countries. Somalia, South Sudan and the United States are the only UN members not to have done so.

Unlike the ECHR, the UNCRC does not give individual children any way to take action if their rights are breached. Bringing the UNCRC into Scots law would enable Scottish children to go to court here to defend their rights.

The Welsh Assembly has moved towards legal recognition of the UNCRC, and from 1 March the devolved Welsh government will be bound by the Convention. The Scottish Parliament, with its greater powers, has the opportunity to be the first part of the UK to incorporate the Convention into law in full.

Bringing the UNCRC into Scots law is supported by UNICEF, the Scottish Human Rights Commission, Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, the NSPCC, Children 1st, Barnado’s, YouthLink Scotland, the Scottish Youth Parliament, Families Outside and Together.

Jean has also backed the Bill’s provision of a ‘Named Person’ service, which will ensure every child in Scotland has someone they and their parents can turn to who can help them navigate the various public services and support available. The scheme has been in place in the Highland council area since 2010, and the new law will roll it our nationwide.

Jean said:

“It’s a shame that the Named Person Service has been so misrepresented by media seeking to cook up a scare story.

“Parents are tired of being passed from pillar to post, never talking to the same person twice, and having to tell their story over and over again; they want joined-up services.

“The named person scheme means that every child and their parents have one person they can always call to help them navigate services, find advice, or be listened to.

“Some people have suggested that named person service means appointing a social worker for every child. That’s not true. In the Highlands, we already have the named person scheme and the people appointed are the local midwife and health visitor until the child goes to school, and then it’s the headteacher or deputy head.

“Named Person has been in place in the Highlands since 2010. I was a Highland councillor until 2012, and have been a Highlands and Islands MSP since 2011, and I’ve never received a single complaint about a named person interfering where they weren’t wanted.

“The Named Person Service will help families get the support they want and deserve, and create a safety net for every child.”

Rolling out the named person scheme across Scotland is supported by Barnado’s, Children 1st, Parenting Across Scotland, One Parent Families Scotland, the NSPCC, Aberlour, the Scottish Youth Parliament, Action for Children, Quarriers, Royal College of Nursing and the Scottish Childminding Association.

Jean’s amendment to the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill:

116 Before section 1, insert—

<Duty on Scottish Ministers to establish a body to consider whether the UNCRC should be given legislative effect

  • (1) Within one year of this Act receiving Royal Assent, the Scottish Ministers must by order establish a body to consider whether the UNCRC should be given legislative effect.
  • (2) Where a body established under subsection (1) has completed its consideration it must—
    • (a) make a written report of its conclusions,
    • (b) lay the report before the Scottish Parliament,
    • (c) publish the report.
  • (3) As soon as practicable after the report has been laid before the Parliament, the Scottish Ministers must make a statement—
    • (a) responding to the report,
    • (b) indicating, on the basis of that report, whether they intend to give legislative effect to the UNCRC.
  • (4) The Scottish Ministers must—
    • (a) lay a copy of the statement under subsection (3) before the Parliament,
    • (b) publish the statement in such a manner as they consider appropriate.
  • (5) An order under subsection (1) may make provision about—
    • (a) the status, constitution and proceedings of the body,
    • (b) the period within which the body must report to the Parliament,
    • (c) the matters which must be covered in the report,
    • (d) the publication of the report.>

Motion: S4M-08425: Scotland’s Place in Building a Just World

I lodged a motion on Wednesday 27th November, following the release of a report by the Network of International Development Organisations in Scotland.

That the Parliament welcomes the report published by the Network of International Development Organisations in Scotland (NIDOS), Scotland’s Place in Building a Just World; understands that, by acting as an umbrella organisation and offering support with networking, engaging, learning and fundraising, NIDOS strengthens the work of over 100 organisations in Scotland that aim to tackle worldwide poverty and inequality; believes that the work of NIDOS and other neutral organisations is important in stimulating debate on Scotland’s future and in influencing thinking on how best to deliver policies that will aid the progression of social justice in both Scotland and abroad through international development; considers that, regardless of the result of the 2014 independence referendum, the debate about Scotland’s future is important; agrees with NIDOS that Scotland can learn from international development programmes such as what it sees as the Swedish Government’s widely acclaimed policy for global development, and commends NIDOS on attempting to tackle issues related to international development, the economy, financial systems, trade and procurement, finance for development, climate justice, access to resources and global education.

The Week Ahead (11th November-17th November)

This Parliamentary week began with work in the constituency office on Monday, followed by a Hogmanay launch on Tuesday morning, and the usual parliamentary team meeting.  In the afternoon, I’ll be attending a meeting ahead of the Members’ Business Debate on Moray Library closures as well as our weekly Independent/Green Group meeting.  The rest of my afternoon will be busy, with two further meetings and a speaking slot in the City of Culture debate at Parliament.  I’ll end Tuesday with a visit to the Edinburgh Napier University Merchiston Campus.

On Wednesday, I’ll begin with my usual attendance of the Finance Committee, of which I am a member.  In the afternoon, I’ll be attending an information session with Scottish Water, then going to the University of Strathclyde to chair a session of an event on the Constitution of an Independent Scotland.  I’ll be back in Edinburgh to attend a Visit Scotland event at the Parliament, then a Polish-Scottish multimedia showcase opening.

Thursday will begin with an STV breakfast reception, followed by meetings with various organisations.  In the afternoon, I’ll be attending an event at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, another on levels of debt in Scotland, and the Stage 3 debate on the Independence Referendum Bill.

On Friday I’ll be in Forres for the A96 duelling exhibition, and then travelling back to Ullapool for the launch of Lesley Riddoch’s new book, Blossom.

Plockton Railway Station Plaque Unveiling

On April 26th, I was privileged to unveil a plaque at Plockton Railway Station to recognise a unique partnership initiative which has driven down anti-social behaviour.

Following complaints of low-level anti-social behaviour at the station by pupils from the neighbouring high school, it was felt the best way to encourage a feeling of responsibility and ownership was by bringing together a collaborative committee of those affected.

As a result incidents have been reduced considerably and the committee, which is made up entirely of pupils, has now gone one step further and adopted the ScotRail station. They now play a part in the station’s upkeep such as maintaining poster boards, planters and picking up litter.

 

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Photos: Planting Potatoes at Hilton Primary School, Inverness

Despite the sudden flurries of snow, I was able to attend Hilton Primary School’s potato-planting session as part of the “Grow Your Own Potatoes” project this morning. It was great to see so many kids so enthusiastic about getting their hands dirty; projects like this and Crofting Connections, which teaches kids about crofting, are fantastic, and long may they continue.IMG_0374 Jean at Hilton PS P5 Hilton PS Potato Planting at Hilton PS