Stuart McDonald is MP for the Scottish constituencies of Cumbernauld, Kilsyth, and Kirkintilloch East; the Scottish National Party Spokesperson on Immigration, Asylum and Border Control; and serves on the Home Affairs Select Committee in Parliament. On Wednesday, 16 November, McDonald secured a 90 minute debate on immigration rules for international students, after which he shared his thoughts with News Editor Olivia R. Nolan about why he believes international students in the UK deserve more then what they are getting from Westminster.
What are the main goals you hope to achieve through a parliamentary debate on immigration rules for international students?
I hope that through holding this debate we can highlight the immense contribution that international students make to our universities and society as a whole. They enrich and diversify the research and learning environment by exposing our own students and staff to different approaches, contributing to their international experience and skills, and creating a more culturally diverse environment. I believe that this diversity should be celebrated and encouraged. International students also contribute over £10 billion per year to the UK economy and this supports around 170,000 full-time equivalent jobs.
However, our international education sector is now falling behind those of other countries as a result of the government’s policy. Canada, Australia and the United States understand the benefits that international students can bring and are all actively pursuing policies aimed at attracting international students.
Meanwhile, the UK Government seems intent on pushing them away. The number of Indian students studying here has fallen by around 50 per cent in the four years since the UK Government started to turn the screw, while our rivals were all improving their offer. The debate provides an opportunity to highlight the many concerns that people have about the Government’s treatment of international students.
What do you feel is the single most important reform to push for regarding this issue?
Definitely the reintroduction of the post-study work visa. Post-study work is important in attracting international students, because it provides an opportunity to gain priceless experience of the business environment and culture in the UK. It is also an extremely important issue for Scotland in particular. Scotland has different demographic needs to the rest of the UK as a result of slower population growth and skill shortages in some sectors. Retaining international graduates in Scotland can help tackle these problems and we can increase the pool of skilled workers available to Scottish employers. Reinstating the post-study work visa would also mean that Scottish universities are no longer at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting international students. We are incredibly privileged in this country to have a number of world leading universities, however, it is clear that we are losing out as a result of this UK Government’s policy.
How would you describe the ideas and views of those who oppose expanding or reforming immigration rules for international students?
I think it is pretty safe to say that they are out of touch. The range of voices speaking out in favour of the post-study work visa is huge, including all of the parties at Holyrood and, of course, universities themselves. Even a study funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills made it clear that our failure in post-study work offers puts the UK’s universities at a competitive disadvantage in attempting to recruit the best of the international student pool.
What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions about international students among the opposition?
I think the biggest misconception from the UK Government is the idea that over 90,000 international students each year are somehow refusing to leave the UK at the end of their studies. They are desperately trying to reduce this number in order to achieve the Government’s net migration targets and it is this that is the driving factor behind the Government’s restrictive immigration policies. However, all of the research from organisations such as IPPR, the UK Statistics Authority and other experts shows that this evidence is not sound and should definitely not be guiding government policy. They have found that the Government vastly overestimates the number of students that stay in the UK after their studies, by many tens of thousands, and this means the Government policy is geared towards driving out students that might not even be in the UK. The Government really need to look again at this issue by using exit checks and cross-referencing other data sources. It simply is not common sense for the Government to press ahead with new goals for reducing student numbers until such time as the assumptions on which the proposals are based are thoroughly tested.
What do you think are the greatest obstacles in reforming and improving immigration rules for international students?
The main obstacle is really the Home Office’s obsession with meeting net migration targets. Amber Rudd has removed the Government’s time scale to bring migration figures down to the tens of thousands by 2020, but the target still remains. Most experts agree that international students should not be included in any migration targets. All of our competitor countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States class students as temporary rather than permanent migrants and there is no reason why this cannot be the case in the UK. On this note, it is also important to remember that the public do not view international students as immigrants and polling from Universities UK and ComRes revealed that just 24 per cent of British adults view them as such. This poll also showed that about 91 per cent of the British public think that international students should be able to stay and find work in the UK for a period of time after completing their studies.
How do you feel your background as a law student and solicitor has affected your views on international students and immigration overall?
I think that working as an immigration solicitor makes you aware of the bureaucratic nightmare that the immigration system can bring. I know that for many the visa system can be an incredibly stressful and time consuming process and the complexity of the application process certainly does not help in attracting international students. But even when I was training to be a lawyer at Edinburgh University, it was a fantastic opportunity to be exposed to such a rich international environment and meet students from around the world. I was also lucky enough to benefit from an ERASMUS exchange in Leuven and I think that experience really allowed me to understand the benefits that international students bring to our universities.
Interview conducted by Olivia R Nolan on Friday, 18 November, 2016.
Graphic: The Student