Scottish funding debate ‘needed but won’t come before election’

Scottish Parliament poll will see consensus on fee-free HE and may leave universities looking towards independence implications

April 12, 2021
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), campaigns for the Scottish Parliament election in Glasgow Southside
Source: Getty
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP, campaigns in Glasgow Southside in March

Public debate about Scottish university funding is needed but unlikely to come during the upcoming Scottish Parliament election campaign, while the implications of independence for universities will need to be considered longer term, according to sector leaders and experts.

The election on 6 May will see the Scottish National Party aiming to win a majority in Holyrood to bolster its case for a second referendum on Scottish independence.

All the main parties are committed to the higher education funding status quo in Scotland, of tuition-free education funded by the government, the Scottish Conservatives having come around to that position last October.

Universities Scotland’s manifesto asks for the next Scottish government calls for a 13 per cent – £93 million – increase in teaching funding over the next five years. The amount invested in the free tuition of every Scottish-domiciled student dropped by an equivalent amount over the past six years, the organisation says.

Nigel Seaton, principal of Abertay University, said: “Whether students should pay fees is a totemic issue in Scottish politics, and I think this does sometimes hinder wider discussion of university funding. 

“The question of how much public funding Scottish universities should receive and what society should expect in return is just as important. I feel a serious public debate about this is long overdue, but I don’t think it will happen during the current election campaign.”

Sir Anton Muscatelli, principal of the University of Glasgow, said that “while there are some policy choices that should continue to be protected, including free tuition for home students and a commitment to widening participation, there will need to be a willingness across the board to innovate and be open to new ways of working”.

“This may mean more collaborative working and aligning ourselves more closely to Scotland’s economic needs. And while it will require us to work more closely together, it may also mean recognising the diversity of mission within the sector, with each institution playing to its individual strengths, and concentrating activity where it can guarantee the most impact,” Sir Anton added.

Trevor Gale, professor of education policy and social justice at Glasgow, said that since the upcoming poll was “likely to be seen by many as a quasi-independence vote”, the main issue for universities was the same as it was for the rest of Scotland: what would independence mean?

“Whether an independent Scotland will be able to afford to maintain tuition-free undergraduate higher education needs to be asked,” Professor Gale said.

Professor Seaton said that the implications of independence “would depend on how it was done”, but there “are certainly areas that would be affected, at least in principle, such as student mobility and particularly research, where at present there is a UK-wide ecosystem”.

Professor Gale also highlighted Scottish universities’ receipt of UK-wide research funding and of European Union Horizon Europe funding as part of the Brexit agreement. “If Scotland is not able to contribute and not able to replace [this funding] with its own schemes, are we likely to see an exodus of our best researchers from Scottish universities, seeking positions elsewhere where they can access research funding schemes?” he asked.

But, for now, said Professor Seaton, the “immediate concern from the sector is for the transition out of the pandemic to be managed in a smooth and sustainable way that protects the interests of our students and allows us to continue with the research, knowledge exchange and engagement with business that will be so vital in the coming years”.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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