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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
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Mr Ian Davidson (Chair)
Fiona O' Donnell
Dr Eilidh Whiteford
Witnesses: Joy Elliot, NUS NEC, International Students Representative, Robin Parker, NUS President Elect, currently President of the University of Aberdeen’s Student Association, Lesley McIntosh, President, University and College Union Scotland, and Helen Martin, Assistant Secretary, STUC, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: I welcome you to this meeting of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee. I apologise for being slightly late in starting. We have been off seeing a variety of people today during our time in Aberdeen.
I am Ian Davidson. I am the Labour MP for-where am I-Glasgow South West. Sorry, this is Monday, it must be Aberdeen. We have been running about quite a bit. I am Chair of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee. I will ask my colleagues to introduce themselves.
Fiona O'Donnell: Hello. I am Fiona O’Donnell and I am the Labour Member of Parliament for East Lothian.
Lindsay Roy: Hello. I am the Labour Member of Parliament for Glenrothes in Central Fife, Lindsay Roy.
Fiona O'Donnell: Does anyone else feel like they are on " University Challenge " ?
Dr Whiteford: I am Eilidh Whiteford . I am the SNP MP for Banff and Buchan.
Chair: Maybe you could just introduce yourselves. Start from this end.
Helen Martin: Hi, I am Helen Martin. I am an Assistant Secretary of the STUC.
Lesley McIntosh: Lesley McIntosh, President of UCU, University and College Union Scotland, and also a lecturer at Robert Gordon University.
Robin Parker: Robin Parker. I am the current President of the Student Association here at Aberdeen University, so a very warm welcome from myself. I am also the President Elect of NUS Scotland.
Joy Elliot: I am Joy Elliot, and I am the International Students Representative to the National Union of Students and a postgraduate student here at Aberdeen.
Q2 Chair: Fine. I wonder if we could start off by asking you about the latest Government proposals for overseas students. As you will know, when it was originally introduced there was a lot of feedback. Now Teresa May has come back with a new set of proposals. What we would like to hear from yourselves is your observations on what is now being suggested, and whether or not what is now being suggested overcomes the difficulties that were identified the first time around or whether or not there are any difficulties for universities and colleges in Scotland particularly about the new proposals? Who wants to start? Helen?
Helen Martin: Trade unionists are always talkative. From our point of view, I think there was improvement from where we started to where we are now, given Teresa May’s comments, but it doesn’t fully deal with all of the issues that we had. Fundamentally, we disagree with the aim of Teresa May’s policy. This all seems to be about making student migration a more temporary form of migration, and I think for Scotland that fundamental aim does not match what we need as a nation. It is our view that Scotland should be seeking to encourage permanent migration as far as possible, given the issues that we have around an aging population, and high migration can serve to kind of rebalance that, and given the fact that it helps our economy to have migrant workers coming here and staying permanently.
One of the ways that we can get migrant workers to stay permanently is encouraging the students that attend Scottish institutions to stay on and work in Scotland, and they can then use their very highly skilled education that they have achieved in Scotland, with recognised Scottish qualifications, with Scottish employers and they can contribute to the Scottish economy. For us that would be a very positive result and one that is actively discouraged within this policy. The primary issue for us is that they have closed the post-study work route, and we see no reason for that work route to have been closed within Scotland.
We had a very good example in the past of the Fresh Talent Initiative, where the Westminster Government and the Scottish Government got together and they agreed to have a different requirement in Scotland than the rest of the UK. I think that worked very well to provide for the specific needs of Scotland within a UK-wide immigration system. Given that we have had that example in the past, I don’t see why Teresa May’s proposals this time round couldn’t have dealt with the specific needs of Scotland, but instead they have done this blanket, "We will not have a post-study work route at all and they can only go in under tier 2 of the immigration system", which I think is quite limited and limits the opportunities that are there for students in Scotland. It is something that isn’t really required and there is no real reason why you would need to ask them to do that, given the positive contribution that they were making in the past.
Q3 Chair: Maybe if I let you all have an introductory statement first and then we will come back. Lesley, do you want to-
Lesley McIntosh: Yes, just to say that the system, as it is still being proposed, still makes academic staff and support staff a sort of policing and monitoring system. As frontline staff who are dealing with students, we don’t want to have that trust in the relationship between, say, the lecturer and the student being damaged by this constant policing and monitoring system, which I feel is very burdensome; apart from destroying the relationship, it is very onerous on the admin and academic staff involved. I think I will just leave it there at the moment.
Robin Parker: I think we welcome a lot of the concessions that are being made. We are pleased with the idea that, particularly, private colleges are being targeted because of the substandard educational experience that some of those provide, but I think it is still very much the case that we are not overall supportive of some of the real fundamental reasons that have been put forward for doing this. I think we see students as being unfairly targeted through this process as being an easy option for reducing the amount of immigration and whether that is even required. There is very little evidence to suggest that students are an issue and that the overall numbers are significant in terms of the contribution that they make.
Some of the things that we still have significant concerns around in particular, as has been mentioned before, is the post-study work visa. That is both a major attraction for students in choosing to come to Scotland and also I think in the long term it is a real boost to the Scottish economy in terms of some of the high level skills that people who remain in the country provide. I think it is also important to note that it should be seen as a form of work experience that goes beyond the period of study, so it is really a time for people to build on their CV and the skills that they have received from their time at university or college. That is therefore an opportunity to get some of the practical skills that then allows them to go on, wherever that is in the world, in the global economy and take that forward.
I think it is also really important to note that role, that people who are graduates of the Scottish educational system, regardless of where they are from, can become ambassadors for the nation as a whole, wherever they go out into the wider world, whether that is just in terms of business and contacts that they carry but also for Scottish culture and society as well. I think that is really important.
We also have concerns around the limits that will be placed on the length of study. We think there are some real specific things to Scotland in that. I think another thing that is important to note is the role that colleges in Scotland play in terms of higher education and particularly making sure that is a real element, that colleges, for example, can access some of the Highly Trusted Status schemes and that they can also reflect the fact that a lot of students may be increasingly using articulation routes, and so on, and combined programmes, both internationally and into universities but also through our colleges into universities. That needs to be reflected on as quite a specific Scottish thing.
Joy Elliot: So, a lot of the same concerns that Robin expressed. I think the key concerns for international students are around the maximum length of study. In Scotland it is a four-year degree, and there are a lot of four-year-plus ones, whereas in England, Wales and Northern Ireland there are more three-year degrees on average. For international students in Scotland there was a concern that with the maximum length being five years, if they only have five years to do their medicine degree and for whatever reason something happens and they need to take a sixth year, that eligibility would no longer be accessible for them.
Another major aspect is about the Highly Trusted scheme, and we were hoping that Teresa May would look very carefully at some of the criteria that were set out in the Highly Trusted scheme, particularly around issues such as the administration of the scheme at satellite campuses, which Scotland has a fair amount of them, and more regional institutions. Scotland has always had an education that is focused on its regional availability, in allowing students from different parts of Scotland to participate in education near to home. Those institutions would have quite a significant burden under the current Highly Trusted scheme. We were looking for concessions from the UK Government in how that scheme worked and how the UKBA supported and assisted students and staff at the different institutions to make sure that they were eligible for that Highly Trusted scheme and that they were carrying out that Highly Trusted scheme, and that wasn’t given. There was no indication that the UKBA would be under any more obligation to look at regional institutions and to look at smaller institutions, in particular, with satellite campuses.
Q4 Chair: I wonder if I could pick up some of the points that were made and ask for further observations on them. I think there is quite clearly a position that the Government has adopted that it wants to restrict immigration, and I think we are all aware that there have been in the past, certainly, bogus colleges and bogus students. The Government’s view is-and I think it is supported by the overwhelming majority in the country-that we want to have immigration but we want to have it controlled in some way, according to how we decide rather than people deciding themselves that they just simply want to come here. I think in these circumstances I want to pick up with you, if I could, the question of the trusted sponsor status. I understand, Ms McIntosh, your reservations about having it policed by staff working in the establishments, and I think Ms Elliot said this as well.
We either have a system where we know that people coming in are genuine students and are remaining as students or we don’t, and if we don’t then the restrictions on people coming in are likely to be far tighter. I am not quite sure what alternative there is to a system of establishing trusted institutions that we, to some extent, delegate responsibility to to assess people’s qualifications and then check whether or not they are on the courses that they have said they have been on. In the past, as you will be aware, one of the abuses has been people coming in without the qualifications that they claimed, not attending the course, and then not going back at the end. The Government wants to stop all that and the award of most trusted status is obviously designed to almost subcontract this and to trust the educational establishments to do this.
If we don’t go down that route I am not quite sure how else we can do it, and if you are unhappy about the burden do you have an alternative?
Lesley McIntosh: Not particularly an alternative, but it is rather tarring all the students with the same brush, so that you are almost expecting them to have some problem and, therefore, "We’re going to monitor you and police you", rather than having a system for dealing with those few who may be abusing the system. It is a different setup where we are having constantly to monitor students when we are front-line staff.
Q5 Chair: Do you concede that the system has been abused in the past?
Lesley McIntosh: Yes, but is there not some way that those few could be dealt with rather than having this almost aggressive system where we are being asked to police everyone?
Q6 Chair: It is a bit like crime in a sense: if you knew who was going to commit it then you would deal with that at the very beginning, wouldn’t you, rather than having to supervise as you go through?
Lesley McIntosh: We want to make the education system seem welcoming for our international students, and I think for staff to be policing at the front end, where we are dealing with the students, teaching them and providing support, doesn’t seem to be the best system.
Q7 Chair: Can I clarify what the policing role involves? You don’t sort of fingerprint them every week or anything like that, do you? Presumably you are just saying, "Yes, they are alive. We have seen them. Yes, they turned up. Yes, they were moderately sober and they were paying attention."
Lesley McIntosh: Yes, one can take registers. The problem is if they are absent for a reason then what sort of follow-up does that require? That requires extra time and that is where the pressure can be put on individual staff to do that chasing up; how do you phrase that and what do you do if you don’t get a reply? That involves constant policing rather than being more supportive.
Joy Elliot: I think the key issue here is that we have had a system in the UK whereby institutions are independent bodies. They look to evaluate their students, right from attendance through to their competency on an individual status. We have a quality assurance system that makes sure that that system works best for the student and the institution and maintains high quality standards for both Scotland, with the QAA Scotland, and for the UK with the larger QAA body.
The problem that is happening at the moment is that there is an external force-the UKBA-that has come in and said to institutions, "This is how you monitor students. This is how you should allow them to take re-sits", so there is a lot of, "This is how you should" as opposed to having that trust in the institution. An example of this is that the UKBA has determined there is only a certain length of time that a student is now allowed to stay in the country if they don’t do well. So, if a student fails and has to take a re-sit, there is only so many re-sits they are allowed to do. Institutions have had to change their academic requirements to meet that. They were saying, "All students get three chances to re-sit a course", and that very much is the case. They sit, they may fail the exam, and they get two opportunities to pass it after that. The UKBA has said, "No. That is too long a time for a student to either remain in the UK or remain as a student status in the UK. You can only have this much time. If you can’t fit those re-sits in that time you change your academic policy".
The other problem that is happening is how we monitor attendance. Attendance is monitored in institutions in a way that suits the course. For example, I am studying a PhD. I got an email requiring me to show up every week to sign a register in the secretary’s office. I spend three weeks of my month sometimes in Belfast, in Dublin, doing my research. I can’t get to the office to sign that piece of paper but now I have to. I have to fly back, sign a piece of paper in the secretary’s office and then fly back to Dublin to continue my interviews. The system is set up to impose regulations that don’t necessarily match what the individual institution has for their course. You have geology students attempting to do an accreditation in geology. They are spending 28 days in the field. That is required for the Geological Association. Those 28 days means an institution has to drive to Wick to make sure that their international students are there doing the course, somebody who has the responsibility within the institution to be able to account for that attendance.
What we are basically saying is that the UKBA has created a system that restricts the nature of education in the UK and Scotland. It restricts the flexibility that students have, particularly in Scotland with a four-year degree that is often focused on things like work experience, practical application, and on a flexible degree looking for more breadth than depth in a lot of cases. The ability of the student to participate in that opportunity fully is being unfairly restricted by restrictions that are not necessarily derived from an understanding of the nature of education.
Q8 Chair: Is there another way of achieving the same objective? I understand the point about not necessarily wanting to have to sign on every week. I have people in my constituency who are obliged to sign on at the local police station every week to show that they are still in the country. I have people on benefits who have to sign on regularly, but there are always other ways in which these things can be achieved. You are not opposed to the idea that somebody who is in Wick should be vouched for by somebody?
Joy Elliot: No, but I think what we have to recognise is that the institutions have systems by which to do that and those that fall through those systems are actually relatively few. There are a lot of cases where, yes, the student comes in, they don’t have the qualifications; the institution has procedures to catch that and they most certainly do in a lot of cases. You will have lecturers that will come and go, "This student doesn’t appear to know anything about this particular topic and I am having a hard time teaching them". You will have a natural system of attendance. You have systems that are designed to show that someone has not passed in any work. The student flags up. In Aberdeen we have a system, they flag up, they are withdrawn from the course, and there is a natural system that then lets-
Q9 Chair: If you accept the UKBA’s targets, what they are seeking to achieve, you are saying, unless I am mistaken, that the existing systems are adequate for that, abuses in the system can be spotted and it is not necessary to have additional systems being introduced?
Joy Elliot: I think the biggest point about it is that the additional systems are a burden on the Government. The tax costs for these additional systems do not match the added protection they give us to protect us against, and it is an additional burden for institutions, the cost of doing this.
Q10 Chair: Can I ask you whether the NUS has discussed this face-to-face with the UKBA?
Joy Elliot: Yes.
Q11 Chair: What have they said to that then?
Joy Elliot: The main response has been, "We will provide more clear guidance". So we have brought a lot of these particular issues; we have brought particular case studies and things like that. The UKBA is saying that in fact what they are proposing is no different than what institutions do day-to-day. They are just trying to formulate this in a more regulated way, but institutions are not interpreting that the same way and there is still this constant push and pull between UKBA and NUS, and UKBA and institutions as well, to try and work out exactly what it is they want.
That has been a major barrier and institutions will tell you time and time again that the UKBA has produced unclear guidance as to what they want and if, in fact, what they are looking for is exactly what we are providing, just in a more regulated across the board way, why are there all these issues? Why are some institutions being told to go back and change things? That is what they are saying. The UKBA is claiming, "It is exactly what you do. We are just trying to codify it", and institutions are saying in fact it is not, and so we are still in the position where those two opinions don’t meet.
Chair: Fine. That is helpful.
Q12 Lindsay Roy: In effect, what you are saying, if I gauge it correctly, is highly trusted status is no more. They are not trusting. They are imposing additional requirements on universities and colleges where, from my understanding, I think there is about 2% non-compliance?
Joy Elliot: You are absolutely right. It is very much a case of in an attempt to codify they are not understanding. So the codes are not being done in conjunction with a great consultation with the institutions and colleges, and they are also not being done with a better understanding of the diversity of the nature of education. Without that you are always going to have a system that doesn’t match what we are naturally doing but is supposed to match what we are naturally doing.
Q13 Lindsay Roy: In effect, would it not be better to get universities to have their own quality assurance system they present to UKBA, and take into account the very example you gave of somebody working in Belfast?
Joy Elliot: Absolutely. I think that would be a far better system and in fact that was the system up until the tier 4 changes. With the tier 4 changes they felt that because we were taking 80 opportunities to get into the UK and changing them to four we needed to codify what those meant. The codification process was done-and UKBA acknowledges this-very, very poorly. The outcome of that is that very specific groups of students and institutions have been unfairly disadvantaged, and I will say that the majority of those are in Scotland. With the different types of degrees, with our focus on breadth, with our focus on work experience and with our focus on practical application Scottish institutions have been unfairly disadvantaged in that.
Q14 Chair: To what extent is this simply a question of working together to find a workable system, as distinct from enormously philosophical different positions? It sounds to me as if a couple of people that have goodwill should be able to work this out between them.
Joy Elliot: Absolutely, just as the tax system; it is a case of us working together and being able to put in our goodwill. It is a case of the fact that decisions are being made outside of Scotland without proper consultation of Scottish institutions and Scottish students. While that can still maintain a place in UK society, there will always be the case where that won’t meet. I think the realisation has to come-what has unfortunately happened is UKBA has recognised time and time again the system is too burdensome but they can’t back down.
The system was created and it needs to be codified somehow. While that has to happen, or there needs to be a strict set of rules, the flexibility that exists within the UK higher education system will never match it unless we are willing to start from the beginning again, and say, "Okay, what was actually wrong with the old system?" and let us propose smaller and more gradual changes, so that there can be a meeting of minds, if you will.
Chair: Yes, incrementalism rather than big bang, right.
Joy Elliot: Exactly.
Q15 Dr Whiteford: I think my biggest concern about this right from the start was that it is a policy that is designed to tackle, I think, an acknowledged problem around a few bogus colleges that are a serious issue, but that actually it is hitting reputable institutions and it is going to disproportionately affect the Scottish universities. I was particularly interested in asking the NUS representatives about the proportion of international students in Scotland, particularly from outwith the EU.
The other question is specifically about four-year honours degrees. The bog standard Scottish honours degree is a four-year course not a three-year course, yet the Government’s guidelines suggest a three-year course with a few exceptions. Will a Scottish four-year degree be recognised as an exception in that?
The other point-maybe it is a slightly broader point I wanted to ask people’s views on-I know that some of the colleges that I have talked to have expressed concern about their ability to meet the requirements of being a highly trusted sponsor in this process, and I would be keen to know your own perspectives on that.
Joy Elliot: Overall roughly 11.4% of the students in Scotland are international students, are classified as overseas international. That does not include international students who have come in with their families, done a few years of school and they still very much require the support of an international student but they are not classified that way for fees. So there are some things to keep in mind there.
The total number of non-UK postgraduate students in Scotland tops 20,000, which is important to note. That means that there are a greater number of students that are coming in for one-year degrees specifically than there are for the four-year option. That is 36.7% of our postgraduate population in Scotland is international. So I think it is important to note that some of our postgraduate programmes simply would not happen without international students, at their current numbers especially. So that is kind of the overall idea.
With the four-year degree issue, the key part is, no, they are not recognising the difference between a four and a three-year degree. We are hoping that the devil is in the detail and that as the system starts to work itself out, if they do maintain this five-year limit, what they are essentially saying is, "You should be doing a three-year degree, or you should be offering a three-year degree, and then in addition to that the idea is flexibility".
So, you have five years to finish your degree. There will be exceptions for medicine and law. That is a given. We are still working out whether there will be exceptions for engineering. A lot of the accredited engineering courses are five years. That is a key aspect for Scotland specifically. However, if you have a student who does a four-year degree that means that they only have two opportunities to get ill, to have a family member die; all the things that happen to students as you go through your courses.
Q16 Chair: But is it not the case that the expectation is that it is five years? There is still provision for a degree of flexibility in the event of serious illness.
Joy Elliot: In the event of serious illness there are degrees of flexibility but the degrees of flexibility make it almost impossible for a student. It requires going home, for example, and added expense. So the student would have to go home during a serious illness and would have to be eligible to go home; they would have to be able to fly. Essentially, they would have to get home and reapply for their entry and provide proof that they can finish their course, which unfairly disadvantages a lot of our disabled international students.
The exceptions are so few. Existing conditions: so, for example, if a student comes with severe dyslexia, that is an existing condition, they are still expected to finish in five years. A dyslexic student from the UK would be given the flexibility to take longer to finish certain courses should that be required. There would be the flexibility the institutions could provide, but that could not happen for international students with very specific disabilities like dyslexia, like autism, a lot of the ones that face great challenges. So what they have done is they have provided a blanket approach, and their exceptions are infinitesimally small in relation to the numbers of students that are coming in that may require them. I guess the end of the story is-
Q17 Chair: You accept that there has to be some limit?
Joy Elliot: Absolutely. I think what-
Q18 Chair: If there was a limit, to allow for the four-year degree in Scotland rather than a three-year degree, if for Scotland where appropriate it was an additional year, that would cover most of your points, would it?
Joy Elliot: Especially since most institutions only allow six years to finish a four-year course. The institutions have a lot of mechanisms by which-again, we are talking about the UKBA changing the system of the institutions.
Chair: The other point you had, Eilidh?
Q19 Dr Whiteford: It was about colleges; it was about colleges meeting the Highly Trusted Sponsor Scheme.
Robin Parker: I think it is a really important point, particularly in regards to Scotland because of the importance of delivering lots and lots of things through colleges and particularly as well those being routes into university. Not only that, but as well the number of international students who are coming in on well regarded, high quality short courses that are very high quality and very much something that a lot of people want to do and something that takes back a lot of skills internationally.
Q20 Chair: Sorry, can I just clarify: is there any reason why colleges should not be able to meet the highly trusted sponsor status?
Robin Parker: As far as I understand, there is still a lack of clarity about whether or not all of them are going-those that don’t have them already will be able to apply for them, and I think there are some very simple, practical things as well around it. Joy mentioned rural college campuses. They have very small numbers of staff often and there are simple questions about some of the practicalities if they are to do it.
I think going back to the previous conversation, it should be about whether the ways of regulation should be educational quality led, and led through the frameworks that already exist for educational establishments rather than impose-
Q21 Chair: That is right. You accept that if the Government is saying, "We want to have some controls over the numbers coming in. Those who are coming here for university have to be monitored to make sure, one, that they exist and, two, that they are attending", it is then just a question of working out how that is done. You are not resisting the principle?
Robin Parker: Yes. I think the way in which that happens should be led on the basis of educational measures, in the way in which education institutions already have a lot of those frameworks there to regulate those kind of things rather than being imposed outwith.
Q22 Lindsay Roy: Is it not possible where often you have two-plus-two in a relationship where they are doing sort of an HNC, HND, followed by a link-up with a university, to have the highly trusted sponsorship relationship through the university?
Joy Elliot: It is. However, it becomes the responsibility then of the university to make sure that the college is carrying out the requirements for the university, and if the college can’t the university can threaten its status. An example of this is that Aberdeen has a similar relationship with North Highland College to deliver some postgraduate programmes that are up there. In fact, we had to terminate that relationship because North Highland College was not capable of undertaking the requirements for sponsorship, and the relationship has gone through another institution now that was more capable of making that link. So what is essentially happening is universities aren’t necessarily willing to take on all that extra burden when the students are in a campus that could be quite some distance from them in the two-plus-two.
Q23 Lindsay Roy: It could be part of a robust partnership agreement that already exists between a university and a college, for example Heriot-Watt and Adam Smith in Kirkcaldy who already have firm relationships and a robust arrangement.
Joy Elliot: Absolutely, but the relationship for a partnership and the relationship that would have to occur under a highly trusted sponsorship unfortunately are two very different things. The requirements for monitoring alone are a significant burden that Heriot-Watt might very well not be willing to put up for Adam Smith if Adam Smith can’t do it themselves. So what we are saying is that those are at risk and what we asked UKBA for is additional support and guidance, which they haven’t been able to deliver. Given the number of two-plus-twos in Scotland, the capacity of UKBA to deliver that guidance is in question.
Q24 Fiona O'Donnell: I wonder, Lesley, if I could pick up. First of all, can I say I am not supportive of what the Government is trying to do here, so these are probing questions hopefully? I do sense a slight contradiction in that on the one hand everyone is saying universities are already doing this but on the other hand you are saying, "We are being asked to do things that we don’t think we should be doing", so it can’t be both. I was wondering, Lesley, in the example of the student who is absent from class, what do you do just now? What is the policy of educational institutions? It seems to me there is a duty of care there, as well as a responsibility to check the person is still on the course.
Lesley McIntosh: Yes, there is something different in following up a student, trying to contact them and saying, "Is there a problem? Are you okay? Can we help you?" rather than, "If you don’t give me information on this I will have to report you to the UK Border Agency". There is that hidden behind it. What we want to keep is the good, trusted relationship rather than being seen as someone who is more policing. We want to care about their educational aspects when they are studying with us and the care and support we give them rather than, "We can now report you".
Q25 Chair: Surely, though, it is part of the package. People applying for a place at university in Scotland will be aware when they come that part of the deal is that they actually are who they say they are, that they have the qualifications that they say they have, and they are going to attend the course that they say they are going to attend, and that they are going to be subject to various checks just to make sure that all those things are true. In those circumstances, it is not as if the lecturer is going to be asked to turn up in the middle of the night to check that they are living where they say they are living. It is just a question of ticking a box to see that they are turning up, and if there is such a small difficulty, as you seem to indicate, I don’t see that this is unnecessarily burdensome.
Lesley McIntosh: I guess when you look at it from a student’s perspective, do they want to come to Scotland where there is this rigorous system in place or would they rather go to some other country where they don’t see the same, perhaps, rigorous nature?
In terms of the rigours of the visa itself, I had a student who had to turn up late to a course because of problems with a visa that were always going to be sorted out but just took time. That meant that she started the course late. She is an international student; English isn’t her first language. She is coming in where students have already made friends in that course, and she needed an awful lot more support to keep her going through that course because of the nature of the whole system. Added on top of that, there is this issue lurking in the background. Rather than seeing a lecturer as someone who is there to support you there is this policing aspect, which, as I have said, lurks in the background. That doesn’t help the student-lecturer relationship.
Q26 Fiona O'Donnell: Lesley, I just don’t understand who can take on that role. I think there is a view that if an educational institution is going to take the money for those fees they have a responsibility surely to some degree. I just wonder if you are making this rather more-using words like "policing" is very provocative, whereas it is about you have entered in, as the Chair said, to a contract and these are the conditions of study.
On the point of saying would they choose to go somewhere else, Joy, can I ask, what is your country? Where did you come from, your country of origin?
Joy Elliot: I come from Canada.
Q27 Fiona O'Donnell: I was born in Canada, so there you are. Is the Canadian system, would you say, more open or more closed than what the UK is proposing here?
Joy Elliot: It is far more open.
Fiona O'Donnell: Far more open.
Joy Elliot: It regards learning as an independent process and that students attend in different ways. I think that is the key part of it. The independent learning process involves maybe very few contact hours and a lot more independent study. We do a lot of hours outside of our courses. We do a lot more courses.
I think the key aspect that is different is that what the UKBA is proposing doesn’t match the contact hours that we normally get. It is expecting students to all want to attend lectures. I will admit that in my undergrad I didn’t attend many of my lectures, but I learned differently. I learned by reading, I learned by discussion, I went to conferences, and I felt that far more enjoyable. If I was an international student here I don’t have that flexibility any more.
Q28 Fiona O'Donnell: Are you on a sabbatical with the NUS?
Joy Elliot: No, I am not on sabbatical at the moment. I used to be a sabbatical. I did take a year out of my PhD to be a sabbatical.
Q29 Fiona O'Donnell: Are sabbaticals allowed under the year as not being included, should students from overseas want to take up positions that do bring a sabbatical with them?
Joy Elliot: No. At the moment it is absolutely allowed. If future changes do exist there would be the requirement for me to go back to Nova Scotia, reapply and come back in proving that I could finish my course.
Q30 Fiona O'Donnell: Have you considered challenging the case of students who have dyslexia in terms of the equality legislation in this country, that it is discriminatory?
Joy Elliot: Absolutely. We are very much waiting again to see how the details work out about these exceptions. So what we are doing right now is-of course, there has just been a broad announcement and if they do persist and not allow for students with disabilities, in terms of the student individually, then, yes, we will be making those challenges.
Q31 Fiona O'Donnell: Finally, can I ask about the students staying on to work in Scotland and everyone agreeing that is something Scotland needs, Scotland benefits from, but also that something makes this an attractive place to study. Do you think the threshold of achieving a salary of £20,000 a year is too high? I am thinking three or four of my children did not achieve that for quite some time after graduating; some still haven’t. What length of time are people being allowed? The argument we got from the UKBA was that students were staying on and working in takeaway outlets, places like that, where they were not contributing skills to the Scottish economy and taking jobs that others could. It would be good to have people’s response to that, please.
Helen Martin: I think we would be very concerned about the £20,000 threshold. I think it is difficult for a new graduate to get a salary of £20,000 straightaway. It also completely disregards the fact that a lot of jobs just now are part-time jobs as well, and how does that get taken into account. With regards to people leaving university and working in takeaways and working in low wage minimum jobs, well, a lot of times people do that as a stopgap while they are looking around, and often you need to be in country to go to interviews and to do other things. In many ways we see this as trying to fix a problem that wasn’t really there, if you know what I mean, and I think that is our fundamental point about these changes.
You talked about is it necessary to make the system more rigorous. Well, we would argue that, no, it isn’t necessary to make the system more rigorous. There was a way to monitor this just through the normal academic processes and yet we have seen tier 4 requirements making it more rigorous. Here again we are having a tier 4 review making it more rigorous again, and in a way we are solving the situation of bogus colleges, really, and we don’t see the issue of bogus colleges being one that exists to any great degree in Scotland. So what we are talking about in Scotland is one or two students who maybe drop out of their courses and do go and work within the country, but it is not a huge amount.
Q32 Chair: The Edinburgh College of Business was a bogus college in Scotland. There have been bogus colleges in Scotland. Can I clarify the point about post-college work and so on? In a constituency like mine, where there are a large number of unskilled or semi-skilled people, students or people who have graduated and are not in a profession and are competing for low paid jobs-security guards, in takeaways and the like-are not adding anything in particular to the Scottish economy. I find it very difficult to see why you would justify them being allowed to remain.
Helen Martin: Obviously the visa requirements, as it were, were only for two years so if they are still unable to find a graduate job under two years they wouldn’t be allowed to remain, but I think that boundary helps people get into work and contribute the sort of skills to the economy that are needed. At the end of the day, while somebody is in a minimum wage job they might not be earning exactly what they want to earn but they are still paying tax and they are still contributing. It is not as if those jobs are completely useless within the society and I think if it does give the graduate that opportunity to go ahead and find something that they are more suited to then that is a positive thing.
Q33 Dr Whiteford: I wanted to come back to the issue of postgraduate research and especially more independent research. I suppose my own perspective on this is from the bad old days 20 years ago when I was myself a postgraduate student. It was still in the days where lots of people would turn up in their first term and their supervisor would say, "Okay, we will see you next term". I know things are very different nowadays but I think there is an issue around people who are working very independently, conducting research. How are our universities going to cope with that, particularly with people doing PhDs where they are encouraged to work very independently?
Joy Elliot: We have had lots of discussions with UKBA specifically around this issue and around the issue of this idea of monitoring attendance for PhD students, but also around the issue of their ability to participate. Sometimes you can only participate in wider research by getting a job. If you can only do 20 hours, even though it contributes greatly to your research, you are hindered in that way. There are quite a few students who are finding themselves unable to interact with industry, despite the focus of their PhD, because of the restrictions on work and what work means. So there are still a lot of issues to iron out with UKBA.
UKBA is starting to be slightly more flexible in the attendance and monitoring, but again it comes back to this issue that we have a system of making sure that supervisors are checking up. Quality assurance says every three months there needs to be a routine presentation, there needs to be a check that the student is there, that they are doing the work, and there is a progress that has to be made in order to move on. So the new QA system, for the first part of the regulations, has this new system whereby there is a progression system. So again, why not the system that is working right now?
If I can come back to the post-study work visa, I would like to bring some data with me. We did a survey of 9,000 students in the UK, international students on the post-study work visa, and of that we had a 9% rate for Scotland. Given that only 11% of our students in Scotland are international students, 9% is quite a high contribution that Scottish students made to this study. 75% felt that the post-study work visa was vitally important to their decision to come to the UK. Of that 72.6% said that if the post-study work visa didn’t exist they wouldn’t have come, they wouldn’t have chosen the UK as their place of study. 82.5% planned on using the post-study work visa after graduating. 81% said the cancellation of the post-study work visa would affect their plans in the UK after they graduated, and a further 95.9% were saying that they feel that they have come here, they require the experience provided by work experience in the UK. From that we have case studies: people who study a master’s in finance; in UK finance, they require work experience on UK finance; studying tourism and hospitality, things like that.
Q34 Chair: I think we understand that, and I think that is the point relating to the question of the £20,000 salary. People who have relatively high qualifications should be able to get a decent salary. There is an issue for us about whether or not that is the appropriate level, but we accept and understand the desirability of people going into a suitable job after a finance degree. What we don’t accept, I think it is fair to say, is necessarily the suitability of somebody going into serving in a chip shop after a finance degree. It may be handy for running the till, and so on, but that is not quite the contribution to the Scottish economy that we would be looking for. That is the dilemma in all of this.
Robin Parker: I think the issue is, as Helen pointed out, around about the time it often takes to find those positions and whether it is because you are going into an internship that doesn’t pay as much as £20,000, whether it is-I hadn’t even thought of the part-time thing-small businesses where the salary isn’t often as high. There is also a significant barrier there potentially under the new system, as far as I understand, where a small business will struggle to pay some of the application fees, and so on, that are required and the stuff to get through that.
Although there were some hints towards allowing sort of entrepreneurial routes in, I am not sure that they are anywhere significant enough and that is one of the real ways in which you can see that real multiplier effect out of education is through those kinds of routes.
Q35 Dr Whiteford: I am intrigued by what you were saying, Joy, about people working while they are studying and, again, it made me reflect. I was an international student in Canada and at that time I had a visa that allowed me to do related work. I couldn’t just go out and get any job, I couldn’t work in a takeaway, but I could do work that was relevant to my course of study. I wonder whether a model like that is something that we should be looking at in the UK as well.
Joy Elliot: The related work is something that we have been pushing very strongly. Instead of saying 20 hours is all you can work during the course of the year and 40 hours during holidays, instead of cutting the post-study work visa, that there is some sort of recognition that a lot of students do see this as work experience. A lot feel that it is everything, from getting a chance to get a hold of UK culture by doing a job. It may be working in a bar or a restaurant but it is the opportunity to converse, to understand UK culture, to understand the system better, to meet locals and integration.
Then also, there are significant restrictions on students doing work experience, and if PSW goes that will reduce that opportunity even further. Realistically, students are looking for work experience. We do accept that there are students who come along and they do work in a takeaway shop, they do use the PSW and all they can get is work in a takeaway shop. If you gave that student the option between work in their degree field and work in a takeaway shop, they would choose the work in their degree field. It may be the case that they can’t get that work, maybe because of where they want to live or whatever. So I think that eliminating PSW because students use it to work in a takeaway shop is a bit of a big hammer on a really small nail. It is looking at saying, "Because a few students choose to take that route we are going to eliminate the route for all of those who want legitimate work experience and require legitimate work experience".
Q36 Chair: To be fair, they are not suggesting that nobody should be able to work after their degree; they would move on to tier 2 and it would be done that way. So it is the same thing for those who are in the field. Your finance expert would then be working through tier 2 rather than the post-study working. So it is the same objective by a different route, isn’t it, is the intention?
Joy Elliot: Not really. PSW placed the burden on the student to apply for the visa; the fees were paid by the student; the visa was provided. When they applied for a job they would tick that box, "Eligible to work in the UK". Now a student is going to go out and have to tick, "Not eligible to work in the UK". The organisation they are applying to is going to have to pay the fees for that visa, undertake all of the paperwork for that visa. While they have conceded that they are not going to have to do the one-month advertisement in the local paper to prove that there is not someone from the UK-they have taken that out under the recognition that it is a graduate job-that is a small concession. You are essentially pitting a graduate student from another country against a field that is far more complicated for them to automatically navigate. You are also asking a graduate student from another country to automatically leave university and understand the UK system of employment, how to get the best job and how to be able to navigate that system. The PSW allows students to get into the field to be able to explore their opportunities.
Q37 Chair: Shouldn’t they be exploring some of these things while they are doing their degree? You don’t finish university and then, "Gosh, what am I going to do now?" although some might, but I mean-
Joy Elliot: That also depends on the institution. Some institutions provide programmes that do allow for a lot of exploration of the industry; some don’t. That is the choice of the student as to what they want to study and the choice of the institution as to how they provide that.
Q38 Chair: We are going to have to draw this to a close because we have another session afterwards. Can I ask whether or not there are any final, final points that any of you want to make? Any answers that you had ready to questions that we haven’t asked you? No? Everybody feel you have had the opportunity to give us all your stuff? If there are statistics and things that you want us to consider by all means send them in rather than reading them out to us.
Lesley McIntosh: Just to say, in answer to Fiona, it is not just my own personal feeling about the policing, it is what numerous staff have told me and have told the union. Some institutions are telling staff that, "It is up to you to monitor this and on your shoulders be it if there is some problem with an individual student", so they feel that weight on their shoulders.
Fiona O'Donnell: Thanks.
Q39 Chair: Coming back, the question is if the staff aren’t willing to participate in the monitoring then the only way of avoiding abuse then is simply to restrict the number further, in which case there will be less staff employed. Given that sort of balance, what is the staff view?
Lesley McIntosh: I would say that I don’t know what the best system is, but staff on the frontline don’t want to have that added burden destroying the relationship between the student and themselves.
Chair: I think the feeling is you would have to give us an alternative.
Robin Parker: On a generalised point around some of the ways in which international students make courses, either because they are specialised courses or because it also makes having more courses in more parts of Scotland viable. I think that is really crucial in terms of Scottish students being able to access those courses, but equally in terms of some of the ways in which, increasingly, courses are being run that create joint programmes overseas. At the moment most of the flows of students are coming from those courses and finishing up their course in Scotland, or something like that, but equally creating those relationships that are mainly at the moment driven out of the viability of international students will, in the future, create tremendous opportunities for UK-based students to go out on to those campuses and so on. I think we are putting those kinds of opportunities at risk, which are potentially very beneficial for local students.
Joy Elliot: Just one last thing. The survey that we did brought out some personal comments, and what I would like to leave you with is some of the key ones for Scotland. A lot of students said that they chose Scotland because the country that they resided in had companies that were based in Scotland or were from Scotland, and they saw those companies; they wanted jobs in those companies; they wanted those companies to keep contracts in those areas; they came to Scotland to do their degree to work with those companies. Those companies are a lot of the time the base of the Scottish economy, especially oil and gas and things like tourism. If we don’t have the relationship where international students are encouraged to come to study in Scotland, to do their work experience freely and openly within some of these companies and then take that back to their home nations where Scottish companies are working, we won’t be able to maintain that partnership link as strongly as if we have the system that we have at the moment, keeping PSW especially.
Chair: I thank you all for coming along. As you will appreciate, we have other people to see as well. Following the discussion today, if upon reflection there are any comments you want to send into us then by all means do so. I think the direction of Government policy is clear. Our ability to change the strategy of the Government is limited. However, the implementation of that policy, it does seem to me, is much more open than the policy itself. They want to do certain things. They have identified a number of ways in which they want to achieve those objectives. If you have a better mousetrap, as it were, if you have a better way of identifying how the same objectives can be met, upon reflection, then by all means let us know and we will consider all those and take those up with the Government. I thank you very much for coming along.
Witnesses: Professor Iain Diamond, Principal, University of Aberdeen, Shona Cormack, Vice-Principal and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience and External Relations), Robert Gordon University, Professor John Duffield, Vice-Principal (Academic), Edinburgh Napier University, and Alastair Sim, Director, Universities Scotland, gave evidence.
Q40 Chair: Could I welcome you to the meeting. We met a couple of you before to discuss this and a lot of what we have been pursuing has been based on the conversations that we had when we met in Dundee and elsewhere. I think we would want to start off by asking you to let us know what you think of what the Government is proposing now. Obviously there have been substantial changes. Are there particular difficulties you still identify, either the principle of it, the operation of it, or that don’t adequately take account of Scottish circumstances? Alastair?
Alastair Sim: Thank you very much, Chairman. Can I just say, first of all, a genuine thank you very much to those members of the Scottish Affairs Committee that we met in February? I think it has taken a really substantial mobilisation of political effort, from yourselves and many others, to get the UKBA’s proposals amended in a way that much better serves the interests of Scotland and the UK and protects our key export industries. Thank you very much indeed for the political commitment that you have shown on that.
I think to give an overall context, before some of my colleagues can give a feel for what is happening at an institutional level, obviously what we see now from the UK Government is a very significant improvement on what we originally saw. If I could touch on some areas in which it has moved substantially on the improvement side. I think not having to leave the country between different levels of study to reapply is a vast improvement. The language requirements of universities now appear to be set at a level that members regard as sensible. Post-study work is a major improvement. I think, as the first panel said, it probably leaves some concerns about our competitive position, but it is a substantial improvement since people can still go on and get skilled employment.
On dependants: we have seen some improvement, particularly postgraduates doing courses over 12 months and Government sponsored students doing courses over 12 months being able to bring dependants with them. Also the continued ability of students to work, including work off campus, during their courses is a welcome retention of an existing privilege. So a lot there that really has represented a substantial improvement as the result of a lot of political and stakeholder interaction with Government.
Alastair Sim: But it is we are working in an extremely competitive environment. We are working in an environment where other countries, notably Australia, New Zealand, even the United States, are working hard to make themselves more attractive to overseas students. We are working in an environment where I think some of the damage really has already been done by the change in international perception of the UK as a welcoming destination. That happened as a result of the UKBA’s original proposals. I think we are still getting wash back from the perception of those original proposals even though they have been ameliorated.
I think at the more technical level some concerns were mentioned by the first panel. I think the five-year restriction on your normal ability to stay on a tier 4 visa is an issue for Scotland, given that there are integrated masters courses of five years, given that you might well want to do a four-year degree plus a one-year master’s, and that really by the time you are doing that within a five-year envelope and you have to do a resit or you become ill or you have to revise your dissertation or you actually want to attend your own graduation, which is not a particularly unreasonable demand, then you may well be falling foul of those five years. I think we would like to see some relaxation of that that reflected the particular circumstances of Scotland.
I think on post-study work, while it represents progress, it is still not a particularly competitive position to be in in relation to others such as Canada and Australia who are a bit more liberal in the requirements of their post-study work regimes, where you may not be compelled to find skilled work within a very short timescale and where you may have the facility to stay on and do an internship, or even do some travel, rather than having to head straight home. I think given that post-study work is such a key determinant, as the NUS said, of how international students perceive where it is best to go, it is still tighter than would put us in a really good, competitive position.
On post-study work, I think also I would express concern that the £20,000 limit may not be universally right. I think, for instance, if you are going on to do an internship to broaden out your experience so you can succeed in the career market back home, then it doesn’t really fit those circumstances. It may not fit the circumstances, for instance, of going into some industries like the creative industries where the remuneration levels are typically pretty modest but where, for instance, overseas countries are really trying to expand their investment in the creative industries and where it may be very attractive for a graduate from a Scottish university to want to do some work experience before going home and contributing back in their home economy.
I think it is also fairly restrictive on the dependant side, that the people who are staying on and becoming tier 2 post-study work people won’t have the right to bring in dependants, unlike the other people in tier 2. Since by that stage you are dealing with people typically at a relatively mature stage, who may well have picked up relationships and dependants, then that could be potentially restrictive.
Sitting under all this is the worry about what happens in the autumn. The Migration Advisory Committee has been invited to look again at tier 2 in the autumn. There is always the worry, the very major worry I think, that having got to a place now that is much better than the place that was originally proposed by the UK Border Agency the whole thing could be overturned again in the autumn if the Migration Advisory Committee comes forward saying that there needs to be substantially further restriction of tier 2.
Professor Diamond: I couldn’t have said it better, but could I just take the opportunity very, very firmly to say thank you for all you might have done in ensuring that the proposals that came from the Home Office are so much better than we might have expected when we met on 6 February.
I have exactly the same concerns still that Alastair has just enunciated. I would just highlight two of them. First, there is the potential for internships. When people work in the energy industry they may come here, do a degree in petroleum engineering or something like that, and then have a short period of internship before going back to their country to work there in the energy industry. That is something that we are actively encouraging and working very hard to make happen. I think that in order to maintain the future of the energy industry here in the north-east as a global industry, we need to get some flexibility around that £20,000. That word "flexibility" is key for me. I have really no problem with many of the proposals that the Home Office has come out with so long as there are some key "normallys" put in and where it would be possible with exceptional cases to be able to go and get a reasonable hearing. It is to me the very firm nature-and clearly one has to start with firm issues-of the proposals that could be in some ways damaging.
Q41 Chair: Thanks. Can I start off by picking up your welcome for what we did, but I think, as we said before, you and the oil industry are not the problem? The question of how we devise a set of rules that covers those areas of the system that are a problem yet at the same time give flexibility in others, that is still the dilemma. It is just a question of whether or not the balance has been struck right. I want to focus on those two because they have to get away earlier and then I will come to the other two, if you don’t mind. The question of most trusted status; we heard earlier on how the lecturers do not want to be monitoring this. How do we do this if we don’t have staff actually keeping records?
Professor Diamond: We have policies at the University of Aberdeen that we believe enable us to manage the highly trusted status sponsor nature quite well. We would expect, for example just on postgraduate students, Dr Whiteford, I think the times have changed. I would be quite depressed if I found that supervisory contact was four times a year. I would hope that the strategies that we have in place at the University of Aberdeen, which do enable us to monitor attendance and progress, are satisfactory to move forward.
Q42 Chair: Sorry, these systems, they are not like cameras, so presumably they involve people?
Professor Diamond: Sure.
Q43 Chair: If the people don’t like doing it and want to avoid doing it, how do we deal with that?
Professor Diamond: I acknowledge what my colleague has said, but at the same time we are in a position where I believe we have to monitor the progress and the attendance of students at the University of Aberdeen regardless of whether they come from Portlethen or from Port Harcourt. It is indeed in retention some of our more local students who we have the greater difficulties with. I think it is our responsibility to make sure that we have progress going wherever people come from. That is certainly one of the policies at the University of Aberdeen and one that I am very proud of and that I don’t see us having a problem fitting that in with the international students.
Q44 Chair: Similarly, the issue about people who are up chipping rocks in Wick or escaping off to Dublin or somewhere similar to do interviews, do you have mechanisms that will guarantee to UKBA that these people do actually still exist and are where they are meant to be and still undertaking the course of study?
Professor Diamond: I think we do and I personally believe that we do that already and that we can do that in the future.
Q45 Chair: Does that apply right across the board for the most trusted sponsor category? Is there anything there we should be worried about or any reasonable person could be worried about?
Professor Duffield: Hello. No, I don’t think so from the perspective of Edinburgh Napier University. We have the admin processes in place. We monitor our overseas students rigorously. We know if they are going off-piste, so to speak, and we do something about it. In terms of a university, it is a burdensome thing to do but we have the processes in place to do it.
Q46 Chair: Alastair, I suppose you are the man covering the whole of the field. You are quite happy that we are not going to read in tomorrow morning’s paper about shock horror abuses of most trusted sponsor status?
Alastair Sim: I think because the requirements for being a highly trusted sponsor are pretty strict then members have actually put systems in place to make sure that they can track students adequately. I think there is a huge amount of premium involved in being a highly trusted sponsor because you are basically not able to compete in the international market if you can’t retain that. If you can’t demonstrate that you are supporting and retaining your international students and you can actually vouch for the fact that they are still there and still progressing in their studies, then you are out of the market. So the strong incentive is to get this right and people do get it right, even if it is quite bureaucratic.
Q47 Dr Whiteford: Just on the Highly Trusted Sponsor scheme, obviously for reputable institutions such as the Scottish universities that should not be an issue, but I know that some of the colleges in Scotland have expressed concern about their ability to meet the rigorous requirements of that. I wondered what implications that might have for you in terms of articulation of degrees with HNDs and things like that, if you are working with colleges.
Professor Diamond: I can’t speak too widely, although I did have a conversation, because of this meeting, last week with the head of Aberdeen College. We don’t see there are any major problems here. We can work together and we see the proposals as they stand as workable.
Q48 Chair: That was not the impression that we had from the previous panel, whom some of you heard. We got the impression that this was going to be enormously complicated and difficult and there was new rules being introduced for the sake of it and no normal human being could be expected to keep on top of all these. That was the flavour of it, I thought. John and then Alastair?
Professor Duffield: Yes, in terms of where there is a strong college partnership and there are students who are effectively articulating on to our degree programme, then yes, we do have a responsibility but we make sure of that when the partnership is developed that the college has the facilities to do that. It is all about the actual development of the partnership and being sure that our partner college has the ability to actually do the HTS stuff on our behalf, if I can put it that way, if that makes sense.
Shona Cormack: I believe there were some challenges at the outset as the requirements were being developed and I think that there is something to learn from that in the future that really there needs to be clarity in terms of expectations. But I think that now that is in place, as Alastair was saying, certainly universities recognise what their responsibilities are in this respect. Yes, there are burdens that come with that, but we recognise that that is a requirement if we wish to retain that very important highly trusted sponsor status and the benefits that come with that, not just from an economic perspective but because we believe that there is value in having international cohorts and we believe that there is benefit there for all our students in ensuring that they gain an international experience that will be of value to them when they leave university and then enter the world of work. I think we recognise, as with many other requirements, whether that is health and safety or anything else, that that is, if you like, a ticket to play.
Q49 Chair: Just in terms of the rules that are being applied just now that the UKBA are proposing, you are saying, yes, that they are workable. Do you have a relationship with the UKBA that will allow a degree of dialogue to have some things that are perhaps unduly burdensome relaxed or changed or amended a bit, or is it just very much a take it or leave it from them?
Alastair Sim: If I could just refer to the corporate level of engagement rather than the institutional level of engagement that we have had with UKBA over the past few months, I would say that since the beginning of this calendar year we have seen that relationship change quite markedly from one being where at a corporate level we were basically told how things were going to be, to one where the senior managers in UKBA are having quite an intelligent conversation with university managers about how to make these things work.
The sheer scale of the response to tier 4 consultation, 31,000 responses, the sheer adverse reaction to some of it I think has been a bit of a shock to UKBA at senior management level and now they realise they have to talk. But I don’t want to be overconfident because I think there are things that we have identified as being potential difficult areas, like the five-year area and like whether we really have it quite right yet on post-study work, where I think we do need to have quite intensive dialogue and I would not want to express an overconfidence that will be got right.
Q50 Chair: No, I understand that. Some of that I would draw a distinction between the UKBA and Ministers who are instructing the UKBA how to do it and what to do and so on. At the moment I just wanted to be clear about whether or not we should be going back to recommend either that the dialogue is totally unsatisfactory and it has to be started or, as I think you are saying, that considerable progress has been made in having a relationship with the UKBA whereby they are understanding the nature of the difficulties that you are facing, that there is some coming and going and an acceptance of yourself of where the Government wants to be at the end of the day, and joint working to try and get there. That is a much more positive message than I think we had at the beginning and it is very much to be welcomed.
Professor Diamond: I very much hoped that you would echo that positive message because I do think that there is a dialogue going on but it is a dialogue that, as I said earlier, needs to be around the flexibility and the need to move from what are workable proposals as long as that flexibility exists. I am with Alastair again, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, but we have a dialogue going. We need to make sure that it is a dialogue of two parts.
Q51 Dr Whiteford: The changes to the immigration rules, of which the student visas are a part, are also affecting other aspects of employment. I wonder from the universities’ perspective where things are at in relation to academic and research staff coming from outside the EU into the institutions. The other question, which is very like one I posed to the previous panel, is how important are international students to the Scottish universities?
Alastair Sim: If I can just comment on the international staff-I think colleagues here will wish to comment on particular institutional difficulties-it has genuinely been very difficult. Scotland’s universities are 20% staffed by people from outside the UK. The free exchange of people and ideas is absolutely integral to the intellectual vitality of Scottish universities and I think problems at tier 1 and tier 2 have made that more difficult. I will ask colleagues, with your permission, to maybe give institutional examples of that.
I think in terms of how much do international students matter to Scottish universities, again part of being a university is being open to the free movement of people and ideas. Of course we need to be open to international people. It is culturally and socially important as well as economically. If you are talking about the numbers, then in the last year for which I have data, which is 2009-10, overseas students paid £261 million of fees in Scotland. They brought at least the same amount of benefit to the wider Scottish economy in terms of spending power. It is huge for Scottish universities when you compare it to the £920 million-odd that we get in direct Funding Council grant. You can see it is a very, very significant element of the funding mix and a very, very significant element of our broader contribution to the Scottish economy.
Q52 Chair: Individual examples: is there anything you want to add to that?
Professor Diamond: I would simply add not individual examples but it has been very, very difficult for us to recruit. We do have to recruit and a university like Aberdeen, as with many other Scottish universities, we have to be able to recruit in a global market. I recently appointed three professors of divinity to one of the best departments of divinity in Europe, some would say-well, let us just say one of the best departments of divinity in Europe. Now, two of those came from within the UK or EU, but to get the third it was a Canadian. It was an absolutely brilliant appointment and bringing someone that really made the jigsaw puzzle fit. I could give you examples all over the place, but I need to be able to bring those people in a very competitive global market and it has been very, very difficult to do that. We need to make sure if we are to remain competitive that we can recruit the very best people. On students, three points very quickly.
Q53 Chair: Sorry, Iain, but you did manage it?
Professor Diamond: We managed it but it was difficult. That is exactly where we are at the moment. It is much more difficult. I can’t give you examples of ones that we have not succeeded, but it is much more difficult than perhaps it was two or three years ago. We are concerned that it will become ever more difficult.
On students, if I could just say three things. One, we have a large number of international students at the University of Aberdeen. We do that because it is pedagogically and culturally good for us as a university and for our students, particularly our Scottish students, to have that diversity. Secondly, as Robin Parker pointed out before, there are courses that exist because we are able to get enough people on them by a mix of international and local students. Thirdly, we are able to work with industry to ensure that we are running courses that are right for them, particularly at the postgraduate end. That is important to us as well.
Shona Cormack: Without repeating what Professor Diamond has just said, because I think that is a very eloquent summary of what international students do contribute; however, I think there is one additional thing, which is around the point that I think somebody made earlier around acting as really key ambassadors for Scotland going forward. I think students that have had a good experience at a Scottish university, who have made connections, who have made links, have the potential to make a very substantive contribution, particularly if universities stay in touch through their alumni links, to both the institution but also potentially to the wider economy going forward. I think that should not be underestimated as well as the contribution that they make while in Scotland.
Professor Duffield: I would echo all of those points made and, as an example, for us I think one of the areas would be around the viability of some of our STEM programmes. For example, at the postgraduate level we run a master’s course that has probably two Scottish students on it and something like 15 or 20 Indian and Chinese students. If that course failed to run that would have an impact on our staffing. Those staff are research active. They add a lot, actually, to the renewables industry. We would then have a problem in retaining them within our institution and within Scotland. So the knock-on effects, some of the potential unintended impacts, are potentially quite serious.
Chair: Yes. To be fair, we have not been asking you so much about a lot of that because we had that well hammered into us when we meet you in Dundee. We have also had stuff like that from you in written submissions as well. So, just because we are not asking about things doesn’t mean to say that we are not interested and we are not covering them.
Q54 Lindsay Roy: I want to follow up on that. In the aftermath of the original proposals, despite the welcome changes, do you envisage any threats to viable courses that you hold at a premium in the current year coming?
Shona Cormack: Without answering that specifically, I think one of the challenges is that we do not yet know how the response to the changes is really going to play out, certainly in terms of postgraduate courses, speaking for my own university, where at the key time of the recruitment cycle, if you like, applications have been made. So far they look like they are holding up, but the key point is not the applications, it is the extent to which those applications convert and then the extent to which those students then enrol at the university. At this stage, we have seen some evidence of press coverage, particularly in some of the key recruitment markets-India, China-neutral at best and, as I say, in a very competitive international recruitment market we don’t yet know the extent to which that is going to play out into conversions and enrolments. So I think there is a fear there.
Q55 Lindsay Roy: Can I intervene with a supplementary? To what extent have you been proactive in promoting the changes that have occurred?
Professor Diamond: Could I just back up everything that Shona has just said? We don’t know just at the moment. I would not say that some of the press coverage has been neutral; some of the press coverage I have seen in some of our key markets has been negative. That is going to be incredibly difficult for us. Now, what we have to do, and I believe it may be too late for entries this year, but what we are absolutely going to have to do as the full nature of the proposals works out is go on a major PR campaign. To come back to what Alastair just said in his initial remarks, we are, if you like, playing catch-up here while some of our main competitors, for example Australia and Canada, are out on the front foot making things easier. We are going to have to work very hard to maintain our competitive position and we know that. Just at the moment I am nervous, I will be absolutely honest, about our conversion this year because of the perceptions that are out there. One of the things that we are going to have to do very quickly is to move those perceptions.
Professor Duffield: We are, in fact, seeing some effect on our applications at the moment. It is hard to know exactly because of the position we are in the cycle. However, we do seem to be getting fewer applications from India and, indeed China, in the postgraduate areas.
Q56 Fiona O'Donnell: Could I congratulate you all. I think you are being incredibly measured and balanced in your comments and your reaction? I just wonder, Scottish universities, given the decisions that have been taken in relation to tuition fees south of the border, face some very difficult times ahead. I know, Alastair, you have recently commented on the importance of the income from overseas students. The Secretary of State is still stating that she expects to see a 25% reduction in the number of overseas students. Do you think Scotland will take more of a hit than the rest of the UK and how is that going to impact on Scottish universities?
Alastair Sim: If I could just comment on the Home Secretary’s 25% point. I think when I first saw press coverage of that on the day of UKBA’s announcement my immediate reaction was one of intense alarm and my second reaction was to start reading the background material that UKBA had helpfully sent me and to understand that she was not anticipating that any of that reduction was going to come from the university sector. Broadly speaking, I think we are not in such a bad place but, as I said in my introductory remarks and as I think colleagues have emphasised, our really severe worry now is just what damage has this done to the perception of the openness of Scottish and UK universities overseas. We work in an extraordinarily transparent environment and what is in the newspapers in Britain one day is in the newspapers in Singapore and Australia the next day. I really do think that we are having to push hard now against that reputational hit.
Q57 Fiona O'Donnell: In terms of Scottish universities like Queen Margaret University in my constituency, they are now looking at developing virtual campuses, campuses overseas. Do you think this will damage that kind of development in our sector?
Professor Diamond: I don’t think it is going to damage that development per se, but one is going to have to look very carefully when engaging in ventures such as that at the business case and really do one’s market research incredibly carefully. We at the University of Aberdeen are not cutting our wrists yet over this, but we are absolutely clear that we have an awful lot of work to do. As I said earlier, we are playing catch-up and we have to catch up very quickly.
Q58 Fiona O'Donnell: Just very quickly, are there any concerns about the English language test from anyone?
Chair: That is a no, then.
Fiona O’Donnell: No. Great.
Q59 Chair: Can I just come back to the point about most trusted status because I would have thought that Aberdeen was likely to be one of the institutions less affected because you tend to be specialising to some extent in areas where you have a competitive advantage. I would have thought that perhaps some of the other institutions who are more general in their offering might very well find themselves in more difficulties than yourselves. Coming just to the most trusted status question, given that the Government does want to restrict the numbers staying here, part of that is the question of those who are leaving. I think that we have always been a bit slapdash in terms of knowing where people go or when they go. Do the universities have systems at all that would help satisfy the Government that people who were coming here as students on a temporary basis were actually going, because that is clearly part of their anxiety?
Alastair Sim: Just reflecting on the general point that highly trusted sponsor status means you have a very high level of duty to maintain your records of the students’ attendance and progress while they are there, I think the evidence that Universities UK and others gave to the consultation established there is a systemic problem for the UK Government, that they just don’t know who is leaving. I don’t think universities can be held responsible for knowing a year or two down the line, for people who have succeeded in getting into tier 2, whether they have in fact left. That really comes down to the systemic issue that I think the UK Government has recognised that you need to get on with rolling out proper means of checking who is actually leaving the country.
Q60 Chair: You don’t have any mechanisms that would help them? Given that they are in a hole, you don’t have mechanisms? I constantly get letters from former universities that I was at begging for money and so on. Presumably you do something similar, I would have thought. If you find yourselves writing to China or to India then it is a fair indication that the student might have gone away if that is the last address they gave you. I wondered if there was any sort of reassurance that we can give the Government that anybody was able to help them be on top of this sort of issue.
Professor Diamond: I will address that point, and if I can come back to something else you said, very quickly. I think we do attempt to maintain contact with our alumni. I agree with everything that Alastair has just said, but at the same time I think there are possibilities for using our contact lists if possible, but I don’t see it as our job to check up on people.
The point I would just like to make, though, you said Aberdeen has a niche market so it is all right. Actually, we are much broader than a niche market, but in that niche market I have already mentioned Canada and Australia. We are in a permanent competition, for example, as our colleagues are at Robert Gordon, with Calgary, with universities in Western Australia. These are places that really are working flat out as part of the World Energy Cities Partnership to get our market and they are being very welcoming. We have to work flat out just to maintain our position, so we don’t sit here comfortably in the northeast of Scotland thinking everyone wants to come just here.
Shona Cormack: Chairman, can I make a point building on what Professor Diamond has just said but from a post-study work perspective? One of the things that we know is that certainly many of the international students at Robert Gordon University come to study at postgraduate level. They are skilled when they arrive with undergraduate degrees. Many of them also have work experience. We also know that some of them at least are attracted by the fact that Aberdeen is the European city of oil and gas, of energy, and we also know that Futureskills Scotland identified that energy and the energy sector was a skills shortage area to the tune of about 1,100 jobs. Those figures are slightly out of date, a survey done in 2008, but we also know, due to the very recently published "Skills Investment Plan for Energy", that based on the replacement demand for oil and gas, plus new demand from renewables, carbon capture and so on, 95,000 new jobs in this area are predicted by 2020. I think it is really important that consideration is given to the potential changes and challenges that might exist in terms of the shift from post-study work to tier 2. While the tier 2 route is very much welcome-there is still something there-I think we very much recognise that there are still details to be published. Alastair talked about the work in the autumn. We know there is still the potential, as I understand it, to cap that route, and I think certainly from a Scottish perspective and what is being sought in terms of economic development, potentially that is an area that still needs some further exploration.
Q61 Chair: Yes, that was the next thing I wanted to pick up. I recognise the strength of the point that you made about it being a somewhat more illiberal scheme than the one that preceded it. I think I understand the point about the £20,000 too high. We have not, I think, had previously today many people raising with us the question of internships and the like and I think that is something certainly that I have never heard the Government discuss, and I think we will refer that back. We picked up certainly the points about the cap. But when we met the UKBA informally last week, one of the issues they were making to us, not unreasonably, was the point of many of the people who have graduated, even with postgrads, then working in takeaway restaurants, working in security, working in quite low level jobs with the anticipation that if necessary they would just stay on here forever. They were seeing it not as a means of obtaining two years’ work experience in order to go back but just as a prelude to staying on here irrespective because even if they didn’t have a very good job here it was still better than going back. Otherwise presumably they would have gone back. It is that balance, and I am not quite sure what we say to Government about this because I think they have a justifiable anxiety. The intention of the scheme is not to allow people to work in chip shops, however worthy that might be. I have people in my constituency who are perfectly capable of working in chip shops but they are not necessarily capable of working in higher level jobs in the oil industry. How do we strike a balance between these points?
Professor Diamond: I think it comes down to flexibility, because if I come back again to something Robin Parker said, I thought quite eloquently, that is that sometimes it does take a little bit of time to get that job and that is where the flexibility comes in. If there is a clear intention that as soon as one has finished one’s study-when one is working towards the end of one’s study one is really working very hard. Getting a job is almost a step too far for someone who is probably trying very hard to get their master’s exams, for example. If we could have a system that said there is a real intention to work in a highly skilled job but one needs that transition, then again it seems to me to be a very reasonable place to be.
Q62 Chair: Surely nobody, if asked, would say, "No, I have no intention of working in a highly skilled job". Everybody would express that intention.
Professor Diamond: I take that point, but that is where we need to move either to a system that says you have such and such time to be able to get into that job, and I think that is the fairest way forward, or one needs a bit more evidence-and that then brings in a bureaucracy-about applications and reasonable expectations of those applications being successful. My preference would be that one allows a period of time to get there and that one can work in the metaphorical chip shop during that time should one so wish.
Q63 Chair: What is a reasonable time, then?
Professor Diamond: That is a very good question and I would not like to put a time off the top of my head. I would be happy to go away and take advice and give you an answer in writing.
Q64 Chair: Fine. This is one of the issues I think we are going to have to come back with some proposals to the Government on if we want to see a change. John and Shona wanted to come in.
Professor Duffield: Yes. With respect to that latter point, I wonder if there is something around HESA graduate employability type measures and measuring employability after six months when a person has left an institution, as happens for our own undergraduate students.
Fiona O'Donnell: Can I suggest to you that that was what I was thinking, John, by looking at how long it takes a British student to find work, but I think you need to allow some time over and above that for overseas students and that they should also be given the opportunity possibly maybe to return home for some time first of all before returning to seek employment.
Dr Whiteford: Can I just add as well, Chair, that postgraduates quite often have quite a specialised degree and it can take a lot of time for a postgrad to find appropriate work of the kind they are qualified for? Over time they will find something but it sometimes can take a year or two to find an appropriate job.
Q65 Chair: The UKBA when we met them were quite clear that they didn’t regard a chip shop as being an appropriate outcome and, therefore that was their line, that people who have genuine jobs-and I thought that there was a bit of flexibility in the question of the £20,000, because we were asking them about whether or not they were taking the different wage rates in different areas into account, and they were saying, "Well, not exactly". It has clearly been baptising people with a hose: one size fits all. But they seem pretty clear on the question of what they thought was and was not an appropriate outcome.
Professor Diamond: I would personally agree with you and them on the chip shop as a long-term outcome, but if you look at what happens to many graduates in the UK, they may take the chip shop option while they are applying and having interviews. That is what we want to enable to happen.
Q66 Chair: Do you have statistics that you would be able to let us have that would demonstrate how long it took graduates to get jobs on average, either postgraduate or-in order that we can demonstrate what is reasonable as a period of time to see then, notwithstanding the degree for a bit of flexibility. If the average was a year then that makes it much easier to say, "Look, UK students genuinely looking for jobs are still finding on average it takes them a year".
Professor Diamond: I don’t have them off the top of my head but could I recommend a short letter to Professor Peter Elias at the University of Warwick who runs for the UK the national graduate cohort study and would have those kind of statistics at the tip of his tongue.
Q67 Chair: That would be helpful. Presumably, is there any reason why figures in Scotland would vary at all from that or would he have it for Scotland?
Professor Diamond: He certainly has it for the UK and I would imagine would be able to subdivide it for Scotland.
Chair: Fine, thanks.
Alastair Sim: I think also I could refer to what Professor Duffield referred to. The destination of leavers from higher education survey takes a snapshot of what everyone is doing, at least everyone who replies is doing, six months after graduation and also samples at greater longitudinal intervals. So you can see the transition that happens between not everybody being in graduate level employment six months after graduation to what happens further down the line as people find their level and get themselves established in their careers.
Q68 Chair: Right, thanks. One of the other points I wanted to pick up with you was the proposed rules on dependants where the Government seems pretty clear: sponsored students and postgraduates yes; the rest generally no. Do you have any observations on that in particular?
Alastair Sim: I think what surprised me when I saw the UKBA announcement was that it did not accept the Home Affairs Select Committee’s advice that postgraduate masters level students who are doing courses that are typically just under 12 months should be able to bring dependants. Again, we are talking about people who may well have reached a stage of life where they have a partner and where it is not an unreasonable ask that if they are doing postgraduate level study they are able to bring their partner with them. I think I was a little surprised and disappointed that the UK Government’s announcement didn’t follow the Home Affairs Select Committee’s advice on that point.
Q69 Chair: The argument there would be that if they were coming for just slightly less than a year there was not any difficulty about them going back and the like. That is the argument?
Alastair Sim: I appreciate the argument but I still think it is another of those hurdles for the UK in attracting the best people that really can enrich our universities if we are saying, "You have to leave your partner back home for 11 and a half months".
Q70 Fiona O'Donnell: Can I just ask Alastair, or if anyone else can tell us, how many courses that are postgraduate that are under 12 months, what the likely impact is going to be?
Alastair Sim: That is the typical length of a master’s degree, just under 12 months.
Q71 Chair: That is helpful. You are not unhappy about people doing the five years of an undergraduate degree not being able to bring their dependants?
Alastair Sim: I will let members comment on what institutional effect that might have. I think it is not what we would have asked for but you can understand that possibly people are at a different stage of life where that is going to be less of an issue.
Q72 Chair: I think, as I understand the Government’s position, the view is that if somebody comes in for five years and they have then two years’ post-study work, if a child that they have with them has gone into school, say at five, that is them 12, it would be argued then that that child, therefore, has had most of their life here and, therefore, the family ought to have a right to remain, irrespective of any other factor. I think the Government feels that it doesn’t want to open that door to settlement that would not necessarily be justified under any other circumstances. You wouldn’t have any particular observations on that? Fine, that is helpful.
Dr Whiteford: I think this is maybe more just a comment, but I wonder if these proposals have been audited for equality implications in terms of women of child-bearing age in their 20s and 30s, which tends to coincide with the stage that people are likely to be engaged in study. I know that that is something certainly in the domestic environment has been an issue around universities and equal opportunities therein, but it would seem to me that it also is quite acute in relation to the issue that has just been highlighted around students coming from overseas and the whole issue of dependants there. It might be something that we might want to pick up with others.
Q73 Chair: Are there any other points that my colleagues have? Your written evidence has been very helpful and I think that has filled out most of it. As I said before to the other panel, any answers you had prepared for questions that we have not asked you and that you have been desperate to give us?
Professor Duffield: Yes, it is about the provision for courses taking longer. I had hoped that in this whole process we would not inadvertently end up throwing away, or threatening rather, the undergraduate four-year degree in Scotland. It is extremely important for us to interact in other international marketplaces, for example in Hong Kong and the like, where they are changing from a three-year undergraduate degree to a four-year undergraduate degree. If we inadvertently threaten that as well, it is going to put us in a worse position in certain marketplaces.
Alastair Sim: Perhaps really through the Chair just principally an invitation that Professor Duffield might want to say something about how the system works for feeder colleges. I am conscious that Edinburgh Napier and other universities have arrangements with private sector colleges to get students to a level that equips them for university level study. I think we would probably want to take this opportunity just to make any points we wanted to make about whether the regime appears to be supportive of that continuing possibility.
Professor Duffield: In terms of the feeder colleges-Navitas, and I believe Robert Gordon University is also interacting with Navitas at the moment-we think the English language provision now proposed is okay, but it is not absolutely clear from the documentation that I have seen as to whether the timelines really work. I think some clarification from the UK Border Agency over those timelines in terms of English language courses and levels-
Q74 Chair: Sorry, I didn’t quite understand that. Can you just clarify for me?
Professor Duffield: Well, it is the level of IELTS that the students come in with and the amount of time that they are able to have as part of their course preparation.
Q75 Chair: I see. Right, yes, it would be a course that they did before the course that they are here to do?
Professor Duffield: Yes.
Q76 Chair: Then I think the Government will probably take the view that if you have post-study work at the end of that, how long is the whole process? That is possibly a reservation. Fine, we can seek clarification on that as well. I am presuming that anybody that is linked in in that way, if they are private sector, comes under, as it were, the university’s highly trusted status and that you are then responsible for monitoring them. It has been the private sector that has been the source of most difficulties in these matters.
Professor Duffield: Yes, but I think Navitas have highly trusted status.
Q77 Chair: Have they? Sorry, right. Well, thank you very much. Even though we are in Aberdeen I was going to say you will have had your tea, but in fact we have tea, coffee and canapés for all who have survived thus long if you wish to join us. If you have to dash off, then thanks anyway for coming along. We will be reporting as soon as we can get the report written. We are hoping to see the Minister at the beginning of next month, the beginning of May, I think 11 May, so we will have to have together the points we wish to raise with him. If there is any additional material that you want to give us then sooner rather than later if you could. Thank you very much.
Professor Diamond: Thank you. On behalf of Shona and myself, may I thank you very much for coming to Aberdeen and visiting this beautiful city on such a wonderful day?
Shona Cormack: It is always like this.
Chair: We have hardly seen any of it, actually.
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