MPs have told UK ministers not to stand in the way if Nicola Sturgeon’s Government seeks to take Scotland back into the EU’s Erasmus+ education programme.

In a major report, the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee (SAC) also says Britain’s Turing scheme, which replaced Erasmus, should be expanded so it funds inward bound international students and opportunities for academic staff.

Last night, Jamie Hepburn, the new Minister for Higher and Further Education, branded Turing a "watered-down imitation" of the bloc's programme and warned it would reduce opportunities for students and faculty. He also said the Scottish Government was continuing to explore ways of improving access to the EU scheme. 

However, the UK Government insisted the decision to end participation in Erasmus was based on securing value for taxpayers.

The SAC analysis explores a wide range of issues facing higher education, including Brexit, the impact of Covid-19, income pressures, risks arising from immigration policy, and ensuring institutions are adequately represented within the UK Research and Innovation funding body.

READ MORE: Support for moves to protect Scotland's participation in Erasmus

Pete Wishart, SAC chairman, said: “This is a crunch time for Scottish universities and improved collaboration and engagement on reserved issues is the key to ensuring the wellbeing of our university sector.

“The reputation of Scottish universities and the research they conduct is nothing short of world class. But they face challenges made more difficult by Brexit and coronavirus.

"Getting the policies impacting right will help them through this rough patch and strengthen the foundations of higher education and research.”

Scrapping UK participation in Erasmus has proved controversial north of the Border, with the SAC report noting that ministers and academics here lobbied for Scotland to remain. Such involvement was opposed by the British Government, it adds.

Earlier this year, Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, also rejected the idea, telling MEPs that, as a “constituent nation” of the UK, Scotland could not be granted separate association.

The Herald: Pete Wishart is Chair of the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee.Pete Wishart is Chair of the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee.

Nevertheless, the SNP manifesto published before this month’s Holyrood election says the party will “continue to advocate” for Scotland’s inclusion while also pursuing the creation of a “Scottish programme of exchange”.

The SAC’s report states: “The Scottish Government has indicated a desire to remain in the Erasmus+ programme. Should they decide to continue down this path and be willing to cover the associated costs, and should the EU consent to Scottish participation, the UK Government should not block this endeavour (at least until such a point that the Turing scheme can facilitate inward exchanges).”

While acknowledging that Turing is expected to benefit more than twice as many UK students as Erasmus+ for the one year currently funded, SAC members also note the British programme will not support inward placements.

“We recommend not only that the scheme continue with at least the same level of funding in future years, but that it be expanded to incorporate the funding of international student and academic staff placements to the UK,” the report adds.

Another area of concern is over-reliance on international student fees following a 12 per cent real terms decrease in public sector money over seven years.

READ MORE: EU chief closes door on separate Scottish participation in Erasmus

“The Scottish Government and Scottish universities should work with the UK Government and universities in other parts of the UK to seek out examples of best practice in diversifying income streams away from potentially volatile international student fees,” the report states.

“In doing so great care should be taken to ensure that core focus on education and research is not lost in favour of commercialised corporate ventures.”

MPs also want to see new scholarships for EU students and lower visa costs for researchers.

Universities Scotland director Alastair Sim said: “The report makes clear that by working together, the UK and Scottish governments can support Scotland’s universities.

“We hope both governments take the time to respond and ensure that Scottish universities can make the most of their potential, be that on immigration policies at Westminster or sustainable funding at Holyrood.”

The Herald: Jamie Hepburn is Scotland's new Minister for Higher and Further Education.Jamie Hepburn is Scotland's new Minister for Higher and Further Education.

Mary Senior, the UCU’s Scotland official, said: “The report makes some useful observations, especially on the shortcomings of the new Turing scheme, and the need for an immigration system which works for the university sector in Scotland.

“The report recognises that Turing is not the reciprocal exchange scheme enabling students and staff to live study or work overseas in the same way as Erasmus, and urges the UK Government to address that.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “The UK Government decided to not participate in the next Erasmus+ programme as it was not in the interest of UK taxpayers and our net contribution would have been around £2 billion.

"The new global Turing Scheme, backed by £110 million, will provide thousands of students across all of the UK with the opportunity to study and work abroad.

“We will continue to work with the sector and devolved administrations to deliver the programme."

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Mr Hepburn said: “The UK Government’s decision to not participate in Erasmus+ is hugely disappointing and directly impacts Scottish students and staff, who have benefited enormously from the programme.

"The Turing scheme is a watered-down imitation of Erasmus+ which will see support for our most disadvantaged learners cut, and opportunities for all our students, staff and young people reduced.

“We continue to explore with the institutions of the European Union how we can improve Scotland’s access to this vital programme. We recognise the importance of reciprocal educational mobility exchange and will announce further steps in due course."

He added: “Universities are autonomous institutions with responsibility for decisions relating to their own operational matters. The Scottish Funding Council continues to work closely with each university in relation to their financial sustainability.”