Gillian Martin, MSP for Aberdeenshire East, warned that a “perfect storm” was brewing for Scotland’s universities post-Brexit as the institutions face the loss of vital research funding and staff.
The comments came during a sitting of the Education and Skills Committee in Holyrood during which evidence was taken from John Swinney, Deputy First Minster and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, on issues raised in its overview sessions on Further and Higher Education.
Universities Scotland had warned that Brexit could “devastate” the Higher Education sector in Scotland. The future of free movement of labour remains uncertain, access to vital EU funding streams for research is threatened and the UK government still refuses to guarantee the rights of those EU Nationals currently living and working in the UK.
The fears of Scottish universities were encapsulated by the Principal of Edinburgh university, Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, who told the Scottish Affairs committee at Westminster last week that the possible impact of Brexit on higher education “ranges from bad, to awful, to catastrophic.”
Mr Swinney said, “I’ve seen principals of universities over time expressing some pretty strong opinions, but I don’t think I’ve quite seen commentary of the nature expressed by Principal O’Shea last week about the implications of Brexit.”
Ms Martin began by raising the concerns that Scottish universities were not consulted ahead of a post-study work visa pilot scheme. Mr Swinney called the decision to limit a post-study work scheme to only 4 institutions in the South of England a “perverse outcome” and said that the UK Government had “completely ignored the interests, the perspectives and the unity of purpose within Scotland.”
The Deputy First Minister assured Ms Martin that the Scottish Government would “continue to sustain and represent the cross-party unity within Scotland to try to persuade the UK Government to make available such provision that would help our institutions.”
Ms Martin warned there is “potential for a perfect storm in our universities should they not have their EU staff available to them, should they not be able to attract research funding in the way that they have as a member of the European Union.”
Mr Swinney described such a situation as “an absolutely disastrous outcome” and assured Ms Martin that “the Government in Scotland will of course work closely with our university colleagues to do as much as we can to articulate their concerns.”
The Deputy First Minister stated “The United Kingdom Government has got to tread extremely carefully because there will not be a higher or further education institution in Scotland that is not a collection of individuals from many different countries who’re working together to create research and teaching excellence. If, as a consequence of Brexit, that is damaged or weakened one bit then we will suffer negative economic consequences.”