Presiding Officer, Scotland is an outward-looking nation and this Government remains absolutely committed to our country continuing to be an open, welcoming and diverse nation.
A key driver of that is the ethos and culture of our colleges and universities, an ethos which supports the cross-cultural exchange of ideas and opinions; knowledge and research; new social activities and greater understanding.
At the same time, the world class reputation of our Higher Education sector in particular ensures that we remain a country where people want to come and work in our universities and also to study here.
A diverse student population, made up of people from Scotland, from other countries in the UK, from across the EU and from other parts of the world help to make that ethos a reality.
The recognised benefits of EU and international students include an enriched learning experience and international outlook amongst home students and graduates, and the development of an international network of alumni.
At University, 22% of enrolments are from EU and non-EU international students.
They are, and will remain, an integral and valued part of our universities and indeed our colleges too.
EU tuition fees
Presiding Officer, there can be no doubt of the threat posed by even the talk of a Brexit which results in the loss of freedom of movement.
The latest UCAS figures show a 10% reduction in acceptances from EU students to Scottish universities.
The continued lack of clarity from the UK Government particularly on freedom of movement and the immigration status of students is frankly, unacceptable.
It ignores that every potential student - and indeed, those currently here in Scotland studying - is an individual, with costs, commitments, families, lives and indeed, alternatives available to them.
Since the EU referendum, we have been clear that we want prospective students from the EU to continue to see Scotland as a place they wish to study, a place they wish to live and a place they can call home.
Previously, we have confirmed that EU students starting their studies in the 2017/18 and 2018/19 academic years will have the cost of their tuition fees met by the Scottish Government for the duration of their studies.
Today, Presiding Officer, I can announce that we will now extend that commitment to the 2019/20 cohort.
This means that all eligible non-UK EU citizens who come to Scotland to study for an undergraduate higher education qualification in 2019/20 will benefit from free tuition.
This will provide confidence for prospective EU students considering coming to study in Scotland, as well as the clarity that our institutions require in order to plan for that academic year.
We are the first Government in the UK to make that commitment and do so to send a strong message to current and prospective students – you are welcome here.
We will also continue to press the UK Government to clarify its position on Erasmus+ after the UK's withdrawal from the EU.
Since 2014 more than 15,000 people have been involved in nearly 500 Erasmus+ projects across Scotland.
The programme is evolving to include vocational education and training, adult education, schools education and youth work.
We want to continue participating in Erasmus+ and its successor programmes, ensuring that people from Scotland continue to have the valuable opportunity to experience living, studying and volunteering overseas, and welcoming others from across the EU to come here to Scotland.
Scotland's Saltire Scholarships
It's also important for us to continue to welcome people from other countries to study in Scotland.
This Government supports our Higher Education sector's efforts to promote Scotland as a destination to study to the wider world.
Scotland's Saltire Scholarships were first introduced in 2009, open to international students from selected countries outside the EU.
They have increased in popularity and reputation over the years.
Indeed competition for the scholarship has grown with almost four thousand applications last year.
From surveying these students, we know that Saltire Scholarships have confirmed people's view of Scotland – that we are a welcome, open and attractive place to visit and study.
The discussions with previous participants and with institutions have also led to another evolution of the programme with a stronger focus on developing a strong network of scholars and alumni to promote Scotland and its education system overseas.
This is all the more necessary in light of the continued uncertainty generated by the UK Government towards EU and international students.
So for 2018-19 and beyond, 50 Saltire Scholars will be selected from academically gifted applicants from the Scottish Government's priority countries of Canada, China, India, Pakistan and the US.
They will study in areas such as science and technology; medicine and healthcare; the creative industries and renewable energy, adding value to priority issues including STEM, digital skills, public services and the low carbon economy.
We will also ensure our new Saltire Scholars to engage with our Global Scots programme.
They will meet with a range of industry leaders while studying here and will be in a position to share that experience with others, wherever the future may take them.
In return we will double the value of the current scholarship from four to eight thousand pounds, an offer made possible by the continuing partnership funding and support from universities.
Other international funding streams
We will also continue to support a range of schemes offering short-term opportunities for international students to come to our colleges and universities, and indeed, for Scottish students to spend time overseas.
These include funding Scotland's participation in the Generation UK-China exchange programme; the UK-India Education and Research Initiative; the UK-US Fulbright Commission; and the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience.
These programmes help to draw talented people from around the world to live and study in Scotland.
It's vital for the health of our economy and society that we are able to retain some of these talented people in Scotland and to allow them to work here.
The UK's current post-study work offer is not adequate for Scotland, and the Home Office's Tier 4 pilot falls far short of the kind of post-study work route that Scotland needs.
We will continue to press the UK Government to respect the cross-party consensus that exists in this parliament and reinstate the post-study work visa at the earliest opportunity.
Presiding Officer, It is also important for us to offer assistance to those international students who are in need of our support the most.
Already, this government supports students who have settled here from Iraq having helped the armed forces as locally employed staff interpreters.
Home Office rules provide them with indefinite leave to remain and our regulations on financial support ensure that they could afford to study for qualifications which might help them succeed in their new lives here.
It is therefore inexplicable that the same opportunity to remain here indefinitely was denied to Afghan interpreters who undertook similar work.
It is the fact that Afghan nationals who were previously locally-employed staff are here only on five years' leave rather than indefinite leave to remain, which has prevented them from being eligible for support to go to university without further adjustment to our scheme and arrangements for financial support.
That is not fair nor equitable and today, Presiding Officer, I am putting this right.
Action will be taken to open up student support to Afghan interpreters, so that eligible Afghan students can apply for tuition and living cost support to undertake courses of further and higher education at our colleges and universities.
This recognises the contribution they have made in their service to the UK and to armed forces deployed to Afghanistan from communities all around Scotland, and also opens up opportunities for them to continue their education to provide them with the qualifications and skills they need to move on in life.
Presiding Officer, the risks from leaving the EU are increasingly significant and becoming more real.
We should not forget that people in Scotland voted decisively to remain in the EU.
All the available information and analysis shows that doing so remains the best option for Scotland and indeed, the UK as a whole.
But we must prepare for an outcome none of us want.
In doing so, we must not allow our distinct voice, our international reputation and our excellence in education to diminish.
Whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, we must send a clear signal not only to people who are already studying here, but also potential students from the EU and further afield.
We must continue to provide opportunities for our own students so that they might benefit from the experience of studying and living abroad.
Presiding Officer, by our words and by our actions, we can show the world that we remain an open nation which values diversity and that we are a welcoming country.
Indeed as the Universities Scotland campaign summed up so succinctly – Scotland Welcomes the World.
Central Enquiry Unit
Phone: 0300 244 4000
The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House