It’s been 994 days since the EU referendum.
Yet, because Westminster and the UK Government remain engulfed in chaos, we still don’t have any clarity as to where Scotland and the UK will be in fifteen days’ time.
And this happens to be Science Week, I want to remind Parliament that our scientific and research excellence is going to be disproportionately harmed by Brexit.
And I also want to outline the Scottish Government’s latest understanding of what Brexit means for our further and higher education sectors more generally, and assure colleagues we are doing all we can to ensure our colleges and universities continue to thrive.
Any visit to any institution, as I was reminded on my visit to the University of Strathclyde yesterday, and University of the West of Scotland this morning, brings home the international character of our campuses. Some of the best brains in Europe choose to study and work in Scotland and EU researchers are driving forward our science and innovation.
It is therefore utter madness that the UK Government is willing to damage this success and rich cultural vain that adds to so much to student and academic life and our economy in Scotland.
And today I say to our EU staff and students directly:
You are welcome here and valued members of our community here in Scotland.
We want you to remain.
Presiding Officer, there can be no good Brexit.
It is for so many people a deeply personal and emotive issue.
At a recent event at the University of the Highlands and Islands, I met Florence, who is originally from Hamburg.
She broke down in tears as she was asking a question at a Q and A I held because of Brexit.
Florence is one of the many who have chosen to come and live, work, and build lives here.
Nobody, absolutely nobody, should be made to feel this way.
It is completely unacceptable, and the UK Government’s botched handling of the entire Brexit process is to blame for that.
The UK Government’s stance threatens the continued success of our colleges and universities.
- a loss of talent
- a loss of access to EU programmes, reducing opportunities for student mobility, research collaborations and funding, and
- a loss of reputation on the global stage
This is made much worse by the UK Government’s draconian approach to immigration.
For instance, the proposed thirty thousand pound earning cap will prevent the majority of early-career researchers coming to the UK.
The recent announcement of an exemption for PhD-level jobs from its own migration cap is a welcome, but small, necessary first step the UK Government have taken.
But so much more needs to be done.
And in a stunning display of just how little the UK Government knows or cares about Scotland, its proposed ‘Temporary Leave to Remain Scheme’ would fall short of covering students studying for a four year degree in Scotland.
To suggest that EU students will have to apply for a visa for a further year – at a cost of up to 840 pounds – is an outrage and must be dropped immediately.
I have already raised these issues with my UK counterpart, Chris Skidmore, and am today seeking a meeting with the Secretary of State for Scotland seeking his urgent intervention.
Throughout my meetings with the UK Government and other Devolved Administrations I have emphasised Scotland’s distinct needs, including calling for the reintroduction of the post-study work visa and full participation in programmes like Erasmus Plus.
The European Commission’s recent emergency regulation on Erasmus, I might add, is a very welcome statement.
Allowing for current Erasmus students to complete their studies abroad regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations showing a degree of leadership sorely lacking from the UK Government.
Again, that is for current Erasmus students and again much more needs to be done.
If there is no deal, Erasmus funding is in jeopardy for all students involved in work or study placements across Europe from the 29 March onwards.
In the next few weeks, I will travel to London to meet Mr Skidmore again to raise this.
Throughout the past months I have consulted extensively with the sectors.
I convened a first ever joint-sector ‘Brexit Summit’ last November to discuss the expected impact of Brexit.
I want to build on this and have asked the Scottish Funding Council to host another summit in April.
However, there are immediate challenges which need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Depending on if, and how, the UK leaves the EU, UK citizens studying for full degrees in the EU may suddenly find themselves liable for international student fees, medical care, and travel insurance.
Our estimates suggest hundreds of students from Scotland may be affected.
Facing untenable increases in costs, many of these students – perhaps even the vast majority - may have to come home to Scotland.
Their studies cut short.
No degree awarded and of course their dreams in ruins.
All because of a Brexit that Scotland didn’t vote for.
And with the damage compounded by the UK Government’s botched handling of the whole process.
The Scottish Government has been urgently working with the sector to prepare for students who may return to Scotland and to minimise any disruption to their studies.
The Student Awards Agency for Scotland has provided clear information and guidance for students on their website, which will help guide them in transferring to a Scottish institution if that becomes necessary.
Today, I want to offer reassurance to those students.
If you left Scotland to study in the EU, and Brexit means you are forced to give up your studies, we do guarantee to provide student support and tuition fees to eligible students so you can study here in Scotland.
That is a guarantee you can bank on in these uncertain times.
We are also taking action to consider longer term rights for Scottish citizens living in the EU to access further and higher education student support.
This will ensure that eligible citizens residing in the EU, the European Economic Area and Switzerland post-Brexit can still return to Scotland to take up study in the future and be able to access the same support that they are currently eligible for now.
As for those EU students currently studying here, or thinking of studying here, we have already committed, as members will know, to providing tuition fees for eligible EU students commencing their studies in academic year 2019-2020 for the duration of their course.
This guarantee remains in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
We are also in active discussions with the sectors about how we might support students beyond that period.
As well as talented EU citizens, our university research is successful in attracting funding from Horizon 2020, the EU’s flagship competitive research and innovation funding programme.
A country’s attractiveness as a place to do research is fundamentally dependent on that country’s access to international schemes.
Since Horizon 2020 launched in 2014, over 558 million euros of funding in research and innovation has been secured by Scottish organisations.
But we are already beginning to see worrying evidence of the damage we are facing.
Catherine Heymans, renowned professor of astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh, is shifting the majority of her research activities to the University of Bonn.
And Brexit, she has confirmed, is the reason behind her move.
90% of her research funding has been provided by the EU.
Professor Heymans does not believe this funding will be replaced were she to remain in the UK.
And latest figures show that the total share of UK and Scottish participations in Horizon 2020 projects is falling.
Our researchers are telling us that EU partners who would have wished to collaborate are avoiding doing so with partners in the UK due to the ongoing uncertainty.
The Scottish Government is seeking to provide much needed clarity where we can, and to represent fully the interests of our staff and researchers in our negotiations with the UK Government.
To provide just one example: we have demanded that more information is urgently needed concerning the UK Government review by the Turing Institute on UK alternatives to Horizon Europe.
My officials and I, along with the Scottish Funding Council, are undertaking regular discussions with the sectors in Scotland.
This includes liaising with staff and researchers on issues that affect them; we want to understand their concerns, and to support them moving forward in any way we can.
I have taken these concerns directly to the European Commission.
Last December, I led a delegation representing Scotland’s research interests to Brussels where we highlighted our world-leading credentials and continued desire to work with European partners and to benefit from European funding streams.
Just this week, the Deputy First Minister and I met with the Chair and Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation.
If UKRI are going to play a role in plugging some of the gap left by Brexit in terms of research funding then we need Scotland to benefit and devolution to matter.
Presiding Officer, much of my time, and that of my officials, is now being spent on considering how best to respond to the challenges and threats around Brexit.
Beyond those examples I have highlighted, there is much work being progressed across the Scottish Government - from resilience planning to external communications, to meetings with stakeholders and with the UK Government.
I am pleased to confirm that we have published a ‘Brexit Action Plan’, highlighting the broad scope of activity we are currently engaged in across my portfolio.
I will be writing to each of our college and university principals to highlight this, and to continue the dialogue we have established between ourselves and the sector on the impact of Brexit.
In closing, I want to emphasise that the Scottish Government will continue to do everything we can to protect Scotland’s interests in a challenging and uncertain context.
We recognise and value the enormous contributions that EU citizens make to our universities, our colleges, and our nation.
We will continue to make the case, passionately, for the benefits of EU membership.
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