Concerns that border controls would be needed if an independent Scotland had a more welcoming immigration policy than the rest of the UK are probably overstated, according to a leading academic.

Professor Christina Boswell will tell a conference on Migration and the Referendum Debate today that there is limited evidence to suggest migrants admitted to Scotland would be a major source of unwanted immigration to other parts of Britain.

However, there are significant questions to be answered about whether a future Scottish Government could easily operate a more welcoming immigration policy, she will argue.

Professor Boswell, an expert in politics and international relations at Edinburgh University, is among the speakers at the conference being held by the Convention on Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) in Edinburgh.

Politicians, senior officers from the public, private and voluntary sector, migrants and academics will be among those taking part in a debate about future direction of migration policy.

Humza Yousaf, external affairs minister, will argue the UK Government's attitude to immigration damages Scotland's universities and the wider economy. Mr Yousaf said: "An independent Scotland would have powers to address repeated calls from Scottish industry and academia for a more tailored approach to migration.

"It would give Scotland the tools it needs to attract talented workers, international students and graduates from other parts of the world to address our known skills shortages and help us cope with the long-term challenges that we know our ageing population will bring."

A UK Government speaker was expected to appear at the conference, but will not now appear. However, Prof Boswell will argue a policy based on the expectation large numbers of people will move to Scotland may turn out to be unrealistic.

A previous period of inward migration between 2001 and 2007, was in the context of economic growth, and before the financial crisis, she said. "Immigrants from the A8 countries also had limited labour market access, but now have far more countries to choose from, and there is more competition from countries seeking to attract skilled migrants."

There is also room for debate about whether Scots, traditionally more relaxed about immigration, would prove to be so supportive in practice, she said. "Surveys suggest Scottish public opinion is not that different from the rest of the UK. Scots appear to be a few points more tolerant, or less worried about immigration, but it is not that different."

The issue is less important at present for Scots voters than for those in other parts of the UK, she said. "If a future Scottish Government became responsible for immigration outcomes, would it create a different political dynamic?" It might, Prof Boswell believes: "It is really tempting for opposition parties to mobilise on an anti-immigration agenda."

She will tell the conference it is unclear how radical a future Scottish Government might be in its approach to immigration. It could be that mainly skilled migrants are encouraged, to fill gaps in the labour market, or policy could encourage people with ideas and skills and talents to come regardless of whether there are jobs for them - because they will tend to help generate growth and employment. A more radical policy still might encourage migration to achieve population growth and offset dependency rates in an ageing population. This would imply larger numbers and less selective criteria for access, she says.

It is likely Scotland could encourage immigration and still remain part of the common travel area with the rest of the UK, Prof Boswell said. The problem of people crossing the border might be limited, if they lost official status in doing so, she added. "I suspect most of the kinds of migration to Scotland would involve people who would have very little interest in moving south of the Border."

Other means of entering the rest of the UK such as people overstaying their visas, are likely to remain more significant, she said. "The idea that people would be flooding across the Border from Scotland is unlikely."

Cosla spokesman on community wellbeing Harry McGuigan said the event would be an opportunity to discuss the future of migration policy, regardless of the outcome of the referendum. "We need migrants to ensure our population is balanced and sustainable, and we need migrants to ensure our local economies thrive," he said. "Migrants build relationships with local people, enrich our communities and expand the world view of young people."

Local politicians have an important role to play in ensuring decisions were based on evidence and not attitudes which blame immigration for putting pressure on services and jobs, he added.