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Mike Russell, Scottish Education Secretary

Scotland is often overlooked in the international education conversation but in 2009-10 it welcomed over 42,000 non-EU students. With the country approaching a referendum for independence from the UK, Education Secretary Mike Russell shared his vision for international education.

The PIE: Why are international students important for Scotland?

"We don't charge fees for our students in Scotland. I think that's an important part of our success"

MR: International students are often the lifeblood of the university. They help the university by bringing in new experiences, new talents. Very often some of those students will go on to study postgraduate degrees at those universities and to contribute either there or elsewhere essentially to learning. It’s also financially important.

Universities require a mix of funding, and the ability to attract international students is part of that mix. So I think it’s important in terms of the health of universities in a variety of ways and it’s also important that we also speak to the world about the quality of the system that we have.

The PIE: How imperative is it for Scotland to set itself apart from England in the international education sector?

MR: We aren’t really setting ourselves apart from England. The [Scottish] education sector has been different since forever. Education is one of the areas which was recognised even in the Act of Union of 1707 as we began a different system. We were really the first country in the world to introduce compulsory schooling in the 16th century that arose out of our reformation.

Our universities are divided into a number of categories, one of them is the Ancient Universities. St. Andrews has just celebrated it’s 600th anniversary. So I wouldn’t call it a setting apart, I would say there’s a distinctive Scottish university sector. For example we have a four-year degree and England has a three year degree. We have a different system that operates in a different way that has a clear and good reputation.

“We aren’t really setting ourselves apart… The [Scottish] education sector has been different since forever”

The PIE: What are Scottish institutions’ selling points?

MR: We have a reputation at those universities which is second to none. We’ve got four or five of the top 200 universities in the world, eight of the world’s top 400 according to the Times Higher ranking. In a population of five million people that’s actually unique. If you look at Hong Kong which is separate from China which is normally put on top of the rankings as a top small country, we’re actually beyond that with our record.

So we have a very high performing higher education system and that’s a result of our history and continued investment. I also think it’s the result of the fact that we have continued the policy of access by ability to learn not the ability to pay. We don’t charge fees for our students in Scotland. I think that’s an important part of our success.

The PIE: Scottish Universities slipped in the most recent Times Higher rankings. What repercussions could that have?

MR: All universities in certain parts of Europe have slipped in rankings. The reality is that there’s very substantial competition from the Far East. But the Times Higher outlook for universities south of the border, given the fees issue, is actually worse than for those north of the border. So I think it’s fair to say that the reputation is still very strong.

“Colleges will want to compete for international students and regionalisation will give them a much better mass to do so”

The PIE: What’s the latest development on a possible EU ruling to allow Scottish universities to charge European students full tuition?

MR: We have made it clear that we would like to charge a management fee to EU students; it is very difficult to do given EU law and EU regulation. I am in discussion but I hold out no particular hope at this stage for an end date to that discussion. We are not funded to provide education for those who are not from Scotland by definition, that’s where we are. I would be very happy if the UK government decided to support it own students by giving them free education but that’s a decision they haven’t made.

The PIE: You’ve been campaigning to consolidate Scotland’s colleges into 13 regional institutions. How will that affect their ability to recruit internationally?[More>>]

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