Wake-up call rings as international decline of Scottish universities due to SNP policies is revealed

Wake-up call rings as international decline of Scottish universities due to SNP policies is revealed

by Elizabeth Smith
article from Friday 22, March, 2019

THIS WEEK, the European University Association published its latest report into the state of higher education sectors in 33 nations across Europe. It did not make for happy reading for the SNP. It points to the 14 per cent real terms decline in direct public funding over the period 2010-17 and describes Scotland as “a system in decline”, the second worst category, just above systems “in danger”.

In response to the findings, Professor Andrea Nolan, Principal of Napier University and Convenor of Universities Scotland said:

“For an independent report to say that Scottish higher education is “a declining system under pressure”is significant, both for the Scottish Government and for our reputation internationally.” She warned that Scotland is at risk of losing one of its key strengths, particularly when it comes to the protection of cutting-edge research projects, knowledge exchange and the richly diverse staff and student body.

She is absolutely right to issue this stark warning and her message is exactly the same message that is being repeated by most of Scotland’s university principals as they are faced with very challenging decisions to make about the future sustainability of the sector. They know only too well that the financial squeeze they have faced as a result of Scottish Government spending policies – over the last three years especially – has really started to bite and is likely to do untold damage to the quality of the educational experience in the future if urgent action is not forthcoming.

Brexit is, of course, a major challenge to the sector too. On Thursday, I chaired a session of Holyrood’s cross party group on colleges and universities at which we listened to excellent presentations from both sectors about the difficulties and uncertainties they are facing. In particular, they raised concerns about maintaining staff and student levels, the availability of visas, the future of Erasmus and Horizon and the future of key research projects. They are right to do so.

But this newly published comparative study of higher education across Europe is not about the fallout from Brexit. It is about the sustainability of our sector when set against its current income streams, against the per centage of GDP spent on higher education, and against the overall funding structures in Scotland so – unlike Brexit – policies that are the full responsibility of the Scottish Government.

This report highlights some really serious issues in relation to the SNP’s higher education policies but, as yet, and despite the protestations of the sector, ministers don’t seem to appreciate the scale of the concern. 

In Scotland, there is an increasing desire of government to increase its leverage over university policy. It began with the governance review of some years ago when the Scottish Government tried hard to reduce some of the autonomy of the sector. It continued with an attempt – albeit a failed one as the Scottish Parliament voted against it – to merge the Scottish Funding Council with the enterprise agencies so that government would have more say over how the universities interact with the economy, and it continues with the widening access agenda where a strict Scottish Government edict has demanded that by 2030, 20 per cent of a university’s student intake must come from poorer backgrounds. 

The irony is that this desire for more control is happening at a time when the percentage share of university income coming from public sources is declining and the percentage share of university income coming from private sector finance is increasing. Maybe this is why the Scottish Government felt it could keep chipping away at the amount it gave universities in the hope that any shortfall could be made up by the private sector.

But there is another, very worrying aspect to Scottish Government policy. With its determination to offer so-called “free” higher education to Scottish domiciled students there is a significant cost to the sector and that comes in the form of the “cap” which is imposed on the number of places that can be offered to domiciled Scots. In other words, the opportunity cost of “free” higher education is the growing number of well -qualified domiciled Scots who have worked exceptionally hard to get the best grades but who are becoming lost to the system in Scotland. 

Every time the Scottish Government tries to defend this policy it tells us that there are more Scots at university than previously and that more students come from disadvantaged problems. True, on both counts, but what it persistently refuses to tell us is that it has no answer when university principals and admissions staff complain that they are prevented from taking on more Scots domiciled undergraduates who have the skills to fill the jobs we need most e.g. doctors and nurses and scientists and language specialists. Nor can it explain why it is prepared to preside over a system whereby many domiciled Scots students can’t take up a place even when one is availablesimply because they fall foul of the “cap”. 

The report that landed on ministers’ desks this week is a real wake-up call regarding the failings within SNP higher education policies. Its message echoes exactly what the sector has been saying for many months and it’s why we have already seen the start of a slide in the number of Scottish universities in the global top 200 list. If that slide is to be halted in its tracks, the SNP needs to radically reform its approach to higher education.

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