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Immigration has emerged as a major issue before September’s referendum on Scottish independence.
Edinburgh says independence would give Scotland freedom to attract skilled migrants and paying students.
Scotland currently has no control over increasingly stringent UK immigration policies designed to drive down net migration to the “tens of thousands” because border policy is a “reserved matter” controlled by Westminster.
But Scotland’s difficulties in recruiting skilled foreigners to work in offshore oil production and IT, as well as a dramatic fall in students attending Scottish universities from the Indian subcontinent, are causing tension ahead of the referendum.
David Watt, executive director of the Institute for Directors in Scotland which represents 1,700 companies, is highly critical of the current arrangement.
“We have an immigration policy that’s largely led by the southeast of England and it’s a significant problem for Scotland,” he said. “Most policies can be shared across the border but immigration is not one of them.”
Edinburgh says it would introduce a point-based immigration system after independence to target people with needed skills, provide incentives for migrants to work in more remote areas, reduce financial thresholds for immigrants and reintroduce visas allowing students to stay and work after graduation.
Immigrants in Scotland make up about 7 per cent of the population, half the level in England, and opinion polls suggest more tolerance for increased flows north of the border.
A 2011 Ipsos Mori poll for the Oxford Migration Observatory found 20 per cent of Scots would support the number of immigrants being increased by “a lot”, compared with just 2.6 per cent in the south of England.
In contrast with Westminster’s increasingly strident stance against immigration, the Scottish government celebrated news of a record-breaking population count last year with a press release trumpeting the country’s attractiveness to migrants.
Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, has ridiculed “perverse” London policies that stop foreign students and researchers staying to work, saying Edinburgh would take a “more enlightened” approach.
Polly Purvis, executive director for ScotlandIS, the trade body for the Scottish digital technologies industry, said companies face a 5,000 annual shortfall in IT workers and would like to have more flexibility to recruit from abroad.
“It’s very complicated for a small company to take on someone from outside the EU because of the administration and bureaucracy involved in the visa process,” Ms Purvis said.
Universities are even more aggrieved about the effect of the UK’s tougher immigration regime. Scotland has five universities which rank in the world’s top 200 higher education institutions but the number of students from India studying at Scottish universities has halved since the coalition came to power.
Susannah Lane, head of public affairs at the umbrella body Universities Scotland, said “frustration [about falling student numbers] is more acute in Scotland because we don’t share the same feelings that immigration is bad or out of control or problematic in the way that it is perceived it is in England.”
Ms Lane is particularly concerned about the drop in overseas students applying to postgraduate courses. “There’s a high demand in business for employees with these postgrad qualifications, and if international applications for postgraduates show a decline then that will be a risk to the economy over the long term,” she said.
For Pete Wishart, a Scottish National party MP in Westminster, immigration has become a totem in the pro-independence campaign.
“We have got an immigration policy that’s practically the opposite of what we require,” he said. “We have a flourishing oil and gas sector and world-class universities . . . [immigration] is a massive issue for us when it comes to Scotland attracting and retaining the best and brightest talent.”