THE Home Secretary has been asked to consider a separate graduate visa for students at Scottish universities after evidence suggested that Tory plans are already causing a “significant decline” in overseas applications.

Carol Monaghan, the SNP’s education spokesperson at Westminster, raised concerns with James Cleverly in a letter seen by The National and sent to coincide with the publication of a review into the UK-wide graduate visa route.

This visa route permits students to work in the UK for two years after graduation from a UK university, or three years if they complete a PhD.

In a review ordered by Cleverly and published on Tuesday morning, the independent and expert-led Migration Advisory Committee concluded the visa route is “not undermining” the integrity or quality of the UK’s higher education system and should remain in place.

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However, the visa has come under sustained attack from Conservatives who are keen to push down record-high migration numbers.

Responding to the MAC’s recommendations not to alter the graduate visa, the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson insisted that “universities and student visas must be used for education, not immigration”.

In her letter to the Home Secretary, Monaghan said that the “UK Government’s restrictive approach to immigration represents a significant risk to the ongoing operations of universities in Scotland and the UK, jeopardising the world-leading research and development sector”.

The SNP MP said that several Scots universities had been in contact with her urging “restraint” from the UK Government, and said that even proposing changes to the graduate visa was “causing a significant decline in enrolments across the sector”.

The National: SNP candidate Carol Monaghan pictured at her offices Dumbarton Rd Glasgow;29/4/15

“Results from a recent Universities UK survey of over 70 universities reveal a significant decline in enrolments – which were reported to be down by more than 40% in January 2024 following previous immigration rule changes,” Monaghan (above) wrote.

“The Prime Minister wants the UK to be a science superpower by 2030, yet with these proposed changes he is more likely to harm our higher education sector than successfully reinvigorate it.

“Reductions in international student numbers are a threat to the future viability of UK universities and impact the short-term operations and long-term economic success of the sector.

“What consideration has the Home Office given to undertaking an economic impact assessment on these proposed changes and how they will affect Scotland?”

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The SNP MP further highlighted Scottish Government proposals for a new five-year “Scottish Connections visa,” which would replace the UK two-year graduate visa.

Monaghan wrote: “International graduates of Scottish universities could apply straight upon graduation to stay in Scotland to live and work for a further five years. Ultimately, this would fit the needs of Scotland and our world-leading university sector.

“Could you outline the discussions you are having with the Scottish Government on this proposal, and whether you have considered devolving migration powers to the Scottish Parliament? This would allow the Scottish Government to tailor our immigration system to best fit Scotland’s needs.”

Speaking to reporters after the publication of the MAC review, Professor Brian Bell, the body’s chair, said that “most of the hard work has been done – by the student dependant changes and the skilled-worker threshold – in terms of reducing the long-run net migration effect of the graduate route”.

About 70,000 international students who finished university in 2023 might have been expected to go into work routes, but recent policy changes may reduce this number to around 26,000, the MAC has estimated.

Bell said: “If that’s right, or even ballpark right, getting rid of the graduate route would have fairly small effects on net migration, because the effects of the student dependant change and skilled worker threshold would be much more important overall.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said of the review: “[The Prime Minister] has said before that British students should be the priority for our education system and universities and student visas must be used for education, not immigration.

“We are focused on driving down migration whilst ensuring the UK attracts the best and the brightest, and we will study the MAC’s findings and outline our approach on the graduate route in due course.”

South of the Border, the UK Government also said it is not considering increasing tuition fees to cover any shortfall in university income caused by reduced international student numbers.

A UK Government spokesperson said: “We are committed to attracting the best and brightest to study at our world-class universities, whilst preventing abuse of our immigration system, which is why the Home Secretary commissioned an independent review of the Graduate Route.

“We have already taken decisive action to address unsustainable levels of migration and our plans are working, with a 24% drop in visa applications across key routes in the first three months of this year, compared with the same period last year.

“We are considering the review’s findings very closely and we will respond fully in due course.”