Cameron Rose: Foreign students can influence policy

An artist's impression of the St Leonard's Street student flats development. Picture: comp
An artist's impression of the St Leonard's Street student flats development. Picture: comp
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Last week Edinburgh University welcomed back one of the most inspirational people I know.

Nicholas Hitimana gave a talk on small business leadership to MBA students at the Business School in Buccleuch Place.

In a few weeks we mark the 21st anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. The country is the size of Wales with a population of 12 million. The 100-day killing frenzy in 1994 left one in seven dead. That is 10,000 for every day.

Nicholas is Rwandan. With his wife and 18-month-old son, in circumstances as terrifying as they were dramatic, he fled the country. Some UK friends managed to extract the beleaguered family from a refugee camp and welcome them to Scotland where, with the generosity of Edinburgh University, Nicholas began a post graduate degree in agriculture which subsequently led on to a PhD in Edinburgh. In 2001 the family returned to Rwanda where Nicholas, now well qualified, declined a prestigious job in the government. His part in rebuilding the country included setting up small-scale agricultural projects, mainly with widows and orphans. His story and success is moving. It is part of the story of one million people being lifted above the poverty line in Rwanda in the last five years.

So last week Nicholas was back in Edinburgh to share his skills and experience with students from around 20 countries on the MBA course at the Business School.

As universities increasingly recruit students from across the globe, my mind often alights on the opportunity for future influence in their own countries. Amongst countless examples of influence at high levels, a striking recent example is Hassan Rouhani who, a few years after getting a PhD at Glasgow Caledonian University, was catapulted into the maelstrom of international politics as President of Iran in 2013.

Well away from international politics is the local controversy of the impact of growing numbers of students in our community. Edinburgh University has around 34,000 students. The provision of managed, dedicated student accommodation has reduced conflict between residents and students.

Of course, wherever they are billeted, the majority of students are relatively short term compared to families and longer term residents, and the question of social cohesion is being raised increasingly. Assessing the right balance of students in an area was at the heart of two recent planning applications for managed student developments in the Southside. The recent Lutton Court and Homebase proposals, both refused by the Planning Committee, have been appealed and are now out of the hands of the council.

More local applications lie ahead and the committee has set about reviewing its own guidelines on what is an appropriate balance of students and the remainder of the community near a university. A swift conclusion is needed and it will not do to kick this difficult decision into the long grass.

The story of Nicholas, snatched from the heart of the most intense genocide of the 20th century, is a reminder that we have an opportunity to contribute to a better world. Whatever decisions are taken on accommodation, students are an opportunity to influence the future.

It is because Nicholas grasped the opportunity with extraordinary courage and humility that he has inspired a host of people – as he did the MBA students in Edinburgh last week.

Councillor Cameron Rose is leader of the Conservatives on the city council