Scottish ministers are under fresh pressure to boost student exchange links with the EU as frustration grows over Britain’s post-Brexit Turing Scheme.

Union bosses at the UCU and NUS Scotland have called on the government in Edinburgh to “step up” and inject funding that would restore fully reciprocal arrangements. 

It comes as leaders at Universities Scotland (US), which represents higher education (HE) institutions, urge ministers to plough nearly £20 million annually into a Wales-style exchange programme. They hope this will increase inward mobility and help reverse a collapse in EU student recruitment.

Following Brexit, EU students without settled or pre-settled status face paying much higher tuition fees. They are also no longer eligible for UK student loans. Observers say this has hit recruitment hard, particularly in poorer continental states. It is feared the drop, combined with an insufficient flow of Scottish learners in some subjects, poses a major sustainability threat to HE courses in areas such as engineering and the creative arts.

READ MORE: Fears for future of Scottish university courses

US bosses have welcomed the recent announcement of a £2.25m scholarship programme to support citizens from the bloc who would like to come to Scotland. However, in a submission released as Holyrood ministers prepare the 2022/23 budget and medium-term financial strategy, they say there should be a multi-year commitment to both scholarships and a “new mobility scheme” that would provide opportunities for “reciprocal movement” of Scottish-domiciled and EU students. They expect the arrangement to require total financial input of £19.7m per annum.

It comes after Boris Johnson’s government decided to end UK participation in the EU’s Erasmus+ programme. British ministers have since launched a replacement called the Turing Scheme, which has been at the centre of a row about whether it helps or hinders those looking to undertake overseas study.

The UK Government claims Turing will boost its “Global Britain” and “levelling up” agendas by making a greater number of opportunities available to poorer students. But critics insist the programme is inferior to Erasmus+. They say it is focused on outward mobility, fails to offer the same level of reciprocity to inbound students, does not provide research/partnership funding and leaves out teaching staff.

Now UCU and NUS Scotland leaders have backed US calls for significant new investment in EU exchange links.

HeraldScotland: The Scottish Government is under growing pressure to invest significantly in higher education.The Scottish Government is under growing pressure to invest significantly in higher education.

Mary Senior, the UCU’s Scotland Official, said: “Turing was never going to match Erasmus, which had well-developed structures and networks supporting reciprocal exchanges of students, staff, and knowledge. UCU is on record calling repeatedly for Scotland to restore this mutual educational exchange offer for staff and students that was lost with Brexit

“We welcomed the Scottish Government’s proposals for a Scottish Education Exchange Programme in last month’s programme for government. It is vital that these plans are backed up with sufficient funding to enable international mobility for learners, staff and ideas.

“This must be about supporting students and staff from overseas to participate in Scottish higher education, enriching our learning environments, as well as enabling learners and educators from Scotland to engage in education elsewhere too.”

Matt Crilly, NUS Scotland President, said: “The UK Government’s approach to Brexit pulled Scotland out of Erasmus+, robbing Scottish students of social, cultural and educational opportunities to study abroad.

“It is our hope that the Scottish Government will step up, protect Scottish students’ interests and create a new £90m international exchange programme. Scotland’s students, especially our most disadvantaged learners, should be fully supported to look outwards and benefit from a global education, and international students should be welcomed to come and study in Scotland.”

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Ms Senior and Mr Crilly also supported the US call for additional money to address years of eroded funding across HE.

“At a time when UCU members in universities are about to be balloted over declining pay rates, pay inequality, increasing workloads, and attacks on the university pension scheme, it’s vital that the Scottish Government provides the much needed cash injection," said Ms Senior. 

“The quality of learning, research and the student experience depends upon the staff delivering this, and as Universities Scotland acknowledges, staff in the sector are already completely overloaded. Universities are key to the education-led recovery, upskilling people, and addressing the climate emergency, but need to be properly funded to do so.” 

Mr Crilly added: “Students across Scotland are struggling. We are seeing increased foodbank usage, over-reliance on debt and even homelessness which is threatening to push students out of education.

“NUS Scotland believes it is crucial that the Scottish Government makes student financial support available 12 months of the year, as well as invests in student associations who provide critical welfare support to the student body.”

HeraldScotland: Jamie Hepburn is Scotland's further and higher education minister.Jamie Hepburn is Scotland's further and higher education minister.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said previously: “In the last year we have sadly seen a dramatic reduction in applications from EU students looking to study here. We are determined to do all we can to reverse the damage caused by Brexit and promote Scotland’s education offer globally.

“We remain committed to Erasmus+ and are exploring how to re-secure Scotland’s access to it. In the interim we are developing a Scottish Education Exchange Programme to support participants from across Scotland’s education system.”

On the wider issue of HE funding, a Government spokesman said previously: “Our universities have an essential role to play in helping drive Scotland’s economic recovery. We look forward to discussing with Universities Scotland how we can continue to support the success of our world-leading institutions in the lead up to the Scottish Budget.”

A spokesman for the UK Government’s Department for Education said previously: “The Turing Scheme is providing over £7m to universities, schools and colleges across Scotland this year, so students from all backgrounds can take up life-changing work and study placements.”