SCOTTISH universities are vulnerable to a crackdown on immigration because of their increasing reliance on fees paid by international students, the sector has warned.

Universities Scotland, which represents principals, said public funding no longer covered the cost of delivering courses and income from tuition fees helped bridge the gap.

Some 22 per cent of students north of the Border now come from countries such as China, America, India and Malaysia compared to 19 per cent across the rest of the UK.

Over the past decade, numbers have risen by 80 per cent with income from fees now amounting to more than £488 million annually.

The sector is concerned about its ability to continue to recruit international students in such numbers because of the tough stance on immigration adopted by the Westminster government and the lack of post study work visas.

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The issue was raised in a submission to a consultation on the issue held by the Westminster Migration Advisory Committee.

Universities Scotland said: “The higher education sector in Scotland is under increasing financial pressure and current funding from the Scottish Government, or through partnerships, does not meet the full economic costs of publicly-funded teaching, research and knowledge exchange.

“Given subsequent real terms cuts of funding council grants to the sector, Universities Scotland estimates that institutions only receive 90 per cent of the costs of publicly-funded teaching.

“International student fees are therefore critical to the financial sustainability of universities in Scotland, allowing them to invest for the future in projects that also drive local economic activity, such as the maintenance and development of university estates and infrastructure.”

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In a separate submission, Shirley-Anne Somerville, the Higher Education Minister, said international students had a vital role to play in tackling the “significant demographic challenges” facing Scotland.

She said: “There will be more deaths than births every year for the next 25 years and the profile of Scotland’s population is ageing faster than that of the UK as a whole.

“Migration is projected to account for all of Scotland’s population growth between 2016 and 2041 and attracting skilled people is vital to the nation’s economic and social health.

“We therefore need an immigration system that recognises the particular needs of Scotland, especially the importance of being able to attract and retain international students.”

The Scottish Government said of the 242,000 students enrolled in Scottish universities in 2016/17 at both undergraduate and postgraduate level 189,630 or 78 per cent were from the UK, 31,045 or 13 per cent were non-EU and 21,245 or nine per cent were EU.

A report published in January suggested the wider economic benefit to Scotland from international students was £1.94 billion.

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Mary Senior, Scotland official for the UCU lecturers’ union, backed the call arguing international students were “hugely beneficial”.

She said: “Many are self-funding, but they’re not just a source of revenue because Scotland gains enormously from international students.

“By meeting new people and sharing knowledge and ideas, all students benefit and become more rounded people while gaining skills both society and the economy requires.”

Jodie Waite, vice president of student body NUS Scotland, added: “The onus is on the UK Government to take steps to end uncertainty, protect student opportunities and ensure our colleges and universities continue to be attractive places for students from around the world to come and study. “That must include securing the freedom of students to move through the EU to work and study, removal of international students from net migration figures, and reinstatement of the post-study work visa.”