To halt the brain drain of global talent, we need an immigration system that works for Scotland

Three years ago Scotland voted to remain in the UK. On the face of it a straightforward result that seemed decisive to onlookers. However, scratch the surface and a more complex landscape emerges.

The Scottish Parliament elections in 2011 returned an SNP majority – a result considered impossible under the Additional Member System used in Holyrood – which paved the way for the referendum in 2014.  This three-year lead-in gave voters the opportunity to consider options, and debates up and down the country ensured examination of possible outcomes.  One issue came up regularly, particularly in university towns like Glasgow – EU membership: “You’ll be kicked out of Europe!” “Get behind Turkey in the queue!” “Spain won’t allow it!”  For many Scots, particularly in the academic community, this was a risk they were unwilling to take.  Fast forward to 2017 and the irony is clear.

Unlike the Scottish referendum on independence, the EU referendum was a rushed four-month campaign. Unlike the Scottish referendum, EU nationals (many of whom had also voted No to independence for fear of Scotland losing its EU membership) were not given a vote. Unlike the Scottish referendum, 16 and 17 year olds, arguably those with the most to lose from coming out of Europe, were denied suffrage.

The position of the research community was unambiguous during this short campaign. Already suffering from an unworkable visitor visa system which was impacting international collaborations, and the removal of the highly successful Post Study Work Visa, the university sector was clear; the UK had to remain in the EU. It is unfortunate that mainstream media chose to focus instead on highly-charged issues such as immigration, often crossing the line into xenophobia, instead of giving proper airtime to the positive case for EU membership as highlighted by the higher education sector.

The triggering of Article 50 in March has done nothing to alleviate the concerns of research groups. Nationality, class and ethnicity are irrelevant in a sector where collaboration and free movement are cherished. At the University of Glasgow 20% of the teaching staff and 50% of research staff are EU nationals. Recent rhetoric by the Prime Minister regarding their long term status is doing little to reassure them. On a recent visit to the university I was told by a researcher, “This is not a question of the technicalities and legalities. It’s about hearts and minds, feeling welcomed and valued. We simply don’t want to hang about where we are not wanted.”

Thankfully, in Scotland the First Minister has made robust statements on the importance of our EU nationals. But we need similarly strong leadership from the UK Government. Get it wrong and there are plenty of countries poised to take advantage of these highly mobile academics.  In Scotland our world-class sector of 19 universities and 26 colleges creates an annual economic impact of £8.4 billion. Not only do we need to treat our existing academics with care but we need the ability to role out the red carpet to talent in both the EU and the wider international community.

Scotland’s problem has always been emigration, not immigration. Fighting brain-drain is an ongoing challenge. As we now face the reality of being dragged out of the EU, the Single Market and Customs Union, our ability to attract talent will depend more and more on having an immigration system that works for Scotland and is run by Scotland. Reinstating the Post Study Work Visa, continuing free movement between Scotland and Europe and introducing fast-track visitor visas for collaborating academics would go some way to repairing the damage caused by the EU referendum result. Whether the Brexit shambles causes a shift within the academic community towards Scottish independence remains to be seen, but many academics are now considering which union is more important. And one thing is sure: they are ready to hear all arguments.

This article originally appeared in The House.


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