The impact of international students in Scotland: Scottish Government response

This publication analyses the economic, social and cultural contribution of international students to Scotland.


The profile of international students at Scottish institutions is different to that of the UK as a whole, with different consequences for the immediate economic, social and cultural impact that they have on their institutions and local communities during their period of study. The potential that they offer to Scotland in terms of longer term migration and economic and social value is also more significant when seen in the light of Scotland's particular demographic and economic challenges.

UK Government's current approach to immigration presents challenges for Scottish educational institutions in attracting international students. The removal of the post-study work route has set Scotland and the UK back relative to the visa offer being made by competitor countries, reflected in the lower rate of growth in international student numbers in Scotland compared to the likes of Australia or Canada.

The UK Government has made clear its intention to withdraw from the European Single Market and the customs union and to end freedom of movement of persons between the UK and the European Union. This is likely to have a significant effect on the number of students from EU countries studying in Scotland in the future. The lack of clarity from the UK Government about its preferred immigration arrangements for EU citizens after Brexit inhibits the ability of educational institutions to plan effectively for the future and creates uncertainty among those EU citizens considering their options about where to study.

While immigration is reserved to the UK Government, the Scottish Government believes that continuing free movement of persons is in the best interests of Scotland and the UK as a whole. We do not believe that a restrictive model which limits free movement is in Scotland's, or the UK's, interests. Furthermore, for migration from outside the EU it is clear that a one-size fits all approach does not meet Scotland's needs. There is a clear case for a differentiated migration system that recognises the different needs across the UK.

There is precedent for a differentiated approach to immigration within the UK: The Fresh Talent initiative, introduced in 2005 by the previous coalition government in Scotland in partnership with the UK Government, allowed international students at Scottish higher education institutions to work in Scotland for two years after graduation. [42] The post-study work route was subsequently closed by the UK Government in 2012.

There is consensus in Scotland, amongst business, education and across political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament of the importance of the return of a post-study work route. This will make Scotland's offer to international students more attractive relative to competing countries, to allow talented students to remain and contribute to the Scottish economy. The Scottish Government encourages the UK Government to accept the recommendation of the Smith Report to "explore the possibility of introducing formal schemes to allow international higher education students graduating from Scottish further and higher education institutions to remain in Scotland and contribute to economic activity for a defined period of time." [43]

The UK Government launched a "low risk Tier 4 pilot" in July 2016, simplifying the visa application process for international students studying a Masters' course of 13 months or less at four UK universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Bath and Imperial College London). In December 2017 the UK Government announced that the pilot had been expanded to include a further 23 HEIs from across the UK, including the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow.

While we are pleased that the UK Government has recognised the need to introduce more flexible arrangements for international students to find work after their studies, the Tier 4 pilot falls far short of a full post-study work route visa. We are disappointed at the lack of consultation from the UK Government with either the Scottish Government or Scottish HEIs; that it took over a year for the pilot to be extended; and that it has been extended to such a limited extent. We are concerned at the emphasis on visa refusal rates as the basis for including institutions in the pilot, as this discriminates against smaller and more specialist institutions whose refusal rates are more likely to vary due to the relatively low number of applicants. [44]

In their report on their inquiry into Demography of Scotland and the implications for Devolution, the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee stated that "The [ UK] Government response makes clear that the UK Government believes that the current system is excellent, and already meets the needs of Scottish universities and the Scottish economy more widely. This position contrasts with the evidence we received during our inquiry into post-study work schemes, and also stands in stark opposition to the views expressed by all of Scotland's main political parties." [45]

The Scottish Government encourages the Migration Advisory Committee to recognise the heightened beneficial impact of international students to Scotland relative to the rest of the UK; and to recommend that the UK Government acknowledges the broad consensus across academia, industry and political parties for the need for a migration system that is more conducive to attracting and retaining international students in Scotland.


Email: * Ed Thomson

Back to top