Richard Lochhead, Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science
For the tens of thousands of final year students who have recently graduated across Scotland, it’s been a special time.
I remember it well. Twenty-five years ago I was celebrating with friends and family at my graduation from the University of Stirling and can vividly recall the mixture of relief, pride, excitement and a little trepidation about what lay ahead.
That scene was replicated at graduation ceremonies up and down the country as, after four years of hard study, students are pondering the start of a new chapter in their lives.
A record 76,000 students graduated from Scottish universities last year. The majority of graduates come from Scotland, but more than 23,000 international students – from 180 countries – graduated from Scottish universities. This breaks down to 7,700 from the EU (not UK) and 15,520 from the rest of the world
In the past two decades, the proportion of international students in Scotland has more than doubled, meaning Scotland now has the highest percentage of EU and non-EU students of any part of the UK.
Clearly Scotland has much to offer and we’d like all of that talent, whether home grown or from abroad, to stay and make their careers and lives here.
That will be all the more important as we deal with the consequences of Brexit, and that’s why we continue to spread the message that we value everyone’s contribution to our economy and society, no matter where they’re from or their role.
We are already deeply connected. Proportionally more students from Scotland take part in the European Erasmus exchange programme, and proportionally more EU students come to Scotland, than anywhere else in the UK.
And our flagship higher education programme, Scotland’s Saltire Scholarships, are now in their tenth year. Over that period they have been awarded to more than 1,400 students from our priority countries of the US, Canada, China, India, Pakistan and – from next academic year – Japan. The scholarships are financed, managed and delivered as a partnership between Scottish Government and each participating university.
So it is clear to me we can, and must, do much more to ensure graduates – especially those from other countries – turn their positive experiences here into influence and support for Scotland.
Graduates can be strong advocates for the Scottish universities at which they gained their qualifications. Some will hold prominent positions in business, industry and government – and all will wield some influence on future decisions of families, friends and peers, whether that be which universities their children will study at or where they go on holiday
Universities already know this, with strong alumni networks around the world that maintain connections and leverage philanthropic activity and fundraising.
As ambassadors for Scotland and our higher education institutions, they can have a huge impact. Alumni can inspire existing and future students, take part in potential mentoring schemes for Scottish universities and build connections and influence to promote Scotland’s international messages.
Scotland’s global alumni could also act as another network to leverage to help businesses to export and are a powerful resource to help propel our country forward.
So we need a national approach. Later this summer I am going to lead a new group to identify and jointly agree commitments that will put alumni at the heart of our global ambitions.
This came home to me recently when, for the first time, I wrote to all final year students receiving funding through the Students Awards Agency Scotland thanking them for choosing to study in Scotland.
The response was overwhelmingly positive, particularly from international students, who told me they are going to stay or come back in future.
Now, more than ever before, we need them to be our ambassadors all over the world.