Ian Swanson: Rethink on post-study work visas long overdue

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UNIVERSITIES, business leaders and the Scottish Government are all agreed – Scotland would benefit from allowing overseas graduates to stay on and work here after completing their studies.

It used to happen. Labour’s Jack McConnell introduced just such a scheme when he was First Minister back in 2005.

But it was subsumed under the UK Government’s points-based immigration system in 2008 and finally scrapped by the Westminster coalition government in 2012. The Home Office claimed it was open to widespread abuse.

Now there are growing calls to re-introduce the post-study work visas, which allowed non-EU students to remain for two years after graduating.

The scheme was seen as boosting the Scottish economy. Universities have warned the decision to scrap it has deterred talented students from coming to the UK and businesses complain they are missing out on skilled workers.

Edinburgh East SNP MSP Tommy Sheppard highlighted the issue in his maiden speech, saying he hoped a “replacement mechanism” could be found and Edinburgh University principal Sir Timothy O’Shea contacted him to back his plea.

The cross-party Smith commission on extending devolution recommended new graduate schemes should be explored.

And the Commons’ Scottish Affairs Select Committee has been conducting an inquiry into the advantages and disadvantages of the work visas, with a report expected shortly.

Immigration remains a Westminster responsibility, but the SNP has long argued Scotland – with its falling population – has different needs from the rest of the UK.

Given his recent boasts of how powerful Holyrood is about to become under the latest transfer of powers from Westminster, it is perhaps surprising that Scottish Secretary David Mundell should appear so dismissive about the idea of reviving the system earlier this month.

He was heavily criticised after he issued a ministerial statement saying existing graduate schemes were “excellent” and the Government had “no intention” of reconsidering post-study work visas.

David Cameron also appeared to rule out any change when SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson raised the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions.

But this week Mr Mundell seemed to have a change of heart and signalled he was willing to consider reintroducing a scheme to allow overseas graduates to work in Scotland.

He told Holyrood journalists on Monday: “My understanding is the Scottish Affairs Select Committee is preparing a report which will provide evidence as to why we need to make changes in relation to the student visa regime.

“I’ve been very clear I want to see that report and hear what they have to say. If a case can be made for a different regime then obviously we’ll look at that.”

And yesterday, he told the committee itself he would “look at any reasonable suggestion to improve the current arrangements” from them.

If Mr Mundell’s latest comments do indeed represent a climbdown from the UK Government, it will be widely welcomed.

Ending a scheme which attracted international talent to Scotland, provided a valuable income stream to universities and benefited the economy longer-term made no sense and the quicker that is put right the better.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com