Splits in Tory Party over student visas

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  By Bob Duncan

Further splits in the Tory party on student visas have emerged as a senior Tory breaks ranks over Home Office statistics that reveal the extent of student visa cuts.

Newly published figures show that in the year ending September 2012 there has been a 26% reduction in the number of UK visas issued for study compared to the year ending September 2011. This year saw 210,921 such visas issued compared to 284,649 the previous year.

Reducing net migration to ‘tens of thousands’ is a key policy commitment of the Conservative Party.

Meanwhile, Holyrood Magazine reveals that Tory Education spokesperson Liz Smith has broken ranks with her party’s stance on student visas, telling an education conference that she is “not comfortable with the current policy of the UK Government”.

She added: “The UK’s visa regime is now significantly more restrictive than that applied by a range of competitor nations who are vigorously seeking to attract talented learners from around the world.

“This places the UK, including Scotland, at a competitive disadvantage.”

Ms Smith’s concerns were echoed by Universities Scotland convener Professor Peter Downes who told delegates: “One of the key threats to universities’ success comes from an element of UK government policy,” Mr Downes added: “Scotland and the UK in general has a brilliant track record of excellence-driven growth in international recruitment.

“This is a success for Scotland in so many ways, not just economically but also as a fundamental part of a free exchange of people and ideas that keeps us constantly learning and growing, and is a key way in which we are securing many thousands of passionate ambassadors for Scotland in the world’s fastest developing economies.

“It seems to me utterly incomprehensible that the UK Border Agency (UKBA) in practice is putting that in danger, creating a competitive disadvantage for the UK and sending out the international message that the Government does not really welcome talented students to our shores.

“As I scan the policy horizon, it’s hard to see a bigger risk, or a more poisonous gun pointed at our collective success.”

Giving evidence to Holyrood’s Education and Culture Committee, the SCDI recently warned that the ‘biggest source of concern’ it had for the future of research in Scotland was Westminster’s tightening of student visas. Scotland’s universities punch well above their weight when it comes to innovation, contributing 12.4% of UK research.

James Alexander of the SCDI  told the committee: “The international student market is worth millions to the Scottish economy… The social benefits are huge. If there are people who have received a Scottish education in senior positions in companies or public organisations around the world, that can only make Scotland look better on the international stage.

He continued: “Therefore, from the SCDI’s perspective, the tightening of student visas is a huge challenge to universities socially and financially, and to Scotland economically. We would like the Scottish government to do all it can to work with the UK government to change the proposed visa restrictions or reduce their impact on international students who study in Scotland.”

Commenting, SNP MSP George Adam – who spoke at the Holyrood conference – said:

“The draconian restrictions that the Westminster Government has imposed on overseas students are a major threat – not just to our universities’ health, but to Scotland’s economy as a whole.

“Now it seems that Liz Smith has become the latest to break ranks in the Tories and recognise just how damaging her party’s policy truly is.

“Scotland currently punches above its weight when it comes to research, but that position is being put in jeopardy by the UK Government.

“It is a completely unnecessary situation, yet Scotland’s universities are being put at a competitive disadvantage in order to satisfy Tory dogma at Westminster.

“Decisions on Scotland’s universities and overseas students should be made by people in Scotland to ensure that we get the right system in place for Scotland, and only a Yes vote in 2014 will secure that opportunity.

“If our universities are to continue to thrive, we need the powers of an independent Scotland to ensure they can no longer sabotaged by short-sighted decisions at Westminster.”