TORY “spin” about the number of international students at Scottish universities has been dismissed as “xenophobic” and "wrong".

Ellie Gomersall, the president of the National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland, said figures pushed by the Scottish Conservatives showing an increase in foreign students at Scottish universities were attempting to portray them as “stealing” places from Scots.

The Scottish Tories highlighted figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which showed that the number of international students attending university in Scotland had risen three times as quickly as the number of home students since the SNP came to power.

But while the proportion of Scottish students has fallen relative to foreign students, the overall number of Scots going to university has increased since 2007.

In a press release highlighting the figures, Scottish Tory education spokesperson Liam Kerr said they showed how “our universities are becoming ever more dependent on tuition fees from international students”.

'Xenophobic spin' 

Speaking to The National, Gomersall agreed Scottish universities used foreign students as a “cash cow” but argued that the Tories were attempting to “spin” the numbers to make it seem like foreigners were "stealing” the places of Scots – which she branded “xenophobic”.

The number of Scottish students is capped because their fees are paid for by the Government, which Gomersall said was because the “amount of funding that universities get from the Scottish Government for each Scottish student isn’t actually enough to deliver their education”.

This means universities rely on charging international students fees. 

The National: Ellie Gomersall, a trans woman pictured in the Southside of Glasgow...Photograph by Colin Mearns.8 March 2022.For The Herald Magazine, see Interview by Mark Smith.

Gomersall (above), who is also a Scottish Greens campaigner, said: “The reality actually is the more international students they recruit, the more money that they have to be able to support the home students in Scotland.

“The whole model doesn’t really work, it isn’t sustainable in the long term, it’s not really fair to treat international students as a cash cow, essentially, to be able to fund places for home students and that’s not right.

“The solution to that is by increasing the among of funding available across education.

“Education is an investment and the Scottish Government should be looking at additional revenue streams like progressive taxation to be able to raise additional revenue within the powers of devolution so that they can invest more money into education so that we’re not having to rely on this cross-subsidy from international students.

“But I think it’s important to be really clear on is that what the Tories are saying, this idea of completely removing the cap and this [is a] really xenophobic, mis-informative line around international students stealing places.”

'Raw deal for foreign students'

Gomersall said international students were being exploited for cash by universities and “getting a raw deal and facing things like homelessness”, adding: “There are real issues with the system but this idea that international students are stealing places from home students is xenophobic and it’s simply not true.”

She added: “This is what the Tories are trying to do, they’re trying to spin it into this sort of [story that] there are more international students, significantly more international students coming, and therefore the proportion of home students is therefore lower.

“But that’s irrelevant because the number of home students who are getting places at university is going up and up.”

The figures showed that while there had been a 60% increase in Scots going to university from 2007 to now, the increase in international students had risen by 205%.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency figures also showed that in 2007-08, international students made up 5.3% of undergraduates in Scotland, compared with 10% in 2021-22.

Research carried out by think tank Reform Scotland in 2022, showed that in the last 15 years, while there had been a 56% increase in the number of Scottish applicants to domestic universities, the rejection rate for that group was up 84%.

Gomersall said the same figures showed that acceptances for that group were also up. She added: “In the period quoted in the report - 2006-2021, the number of Scottish students accepted at uni increased by 46.6% which is clearly a good thing, and although the number of applicants who were unsuccessful has increased significantly, the report doesn't actually show the reasons those applications were rejected.

“It's easy to turn the stats into shocking-looking percentages but I think that hides the reality – that 56% increase in applicants is an increase of about 20,000, but the 84% increase in refusals is only 7000 of those.

“So clearly in that time, 13,000 additional places have been created which is clearly a good thing, and I would hope that that number – as well as the number of those taking on other forms of post-16 education like college or apprenticeships – will continue to increase.”

A Scottish Conservative spokesperson said: "While it’s welcome that so many young people from across the globe choose to study in Scotland, any system that sees Scottish students with the same grades losing out to international students due to funding is wrong.

“The SNP must urgently lift this stringent cap so that more young Scots can attend university here. 

"The Scottish Conservatives will ensure that our universities are given the resources they need to provide world-class tuition without depending on international fees.”