By Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of University of Glasgow
While the confirmation that European students beginning their studies in Scotland from 2021-22 will no longer receive free tuition was not surprising, it was nevertheless a sad day for those who value the immense contribution which European students make to our campuses, communities and national life.
This is another unavoidable consequence of Brexit which will leave us diminished socially and culturally – and which many of us warned about before the referendum. However, there is little purpose in rehashing old arguments. The challenge now is to make the best of the hand we’ve been dealt.
There are two elements to this. Firstly, ensuring that this situation can work for Scottish students, and the government’s commitment to increasing funded places for home students was very welcome. From a university perspective this will reduce potential for financial losses from any reduction in EU students – but there is a more important social element.
Young people are entering the most volatile labour market we’ve ever known – and COVID-19 could precipitate the long-term labour market scarring we saw in the 1980s. Ensuring as many young people in Scotland have the opportunities offered by a university education will go some way to avoiding this – and will equip more of our workforce with the skills Scotland will need to compete internationally.
Ensuring these opportunities are spread equitably is also important. We are making great progress in widening participation, but the increase in funded places should be the catalyst to go further. In a time of economic crisis, we must ensure that nobody is left behind.
The second is ensuring that we continue to attract European students. Many of the fundamentals are already in place. Scotland has a genuinely world-renowned higher education system and punches well above our weight internationally. Equally, our reputation as an open, welcoming destination precedes us.
In the post-Brexit and post-COVID world with the imperative to resume economic growth to help us address the fiscal burden, it’s important that there is a national effort to hammer home the point that Scotland is an outward-looking country, actively seeking those from across Europe and beyond to live, work and study here. In this context, the UK Government decision to allow international graduates to work in the UK for a period after their studies is very welcome and removes one of the barriers to international recruitment.
For those of us who argued against Brexit, this is a depressing situation to be in. But as we must adjust to the ‘new normal’ in our daily lives, so must universities adjust to this new normal, and find opportunities amidst the difficulty where we can.
This article was originally published in The Times on 15 July 2020
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