A fairer, greener Scotland for higher education?

Student support, action on accommodation, an increase in research funding

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The headline for the sector is that Scotland’s new programme for government commits the SNP/Scottish Green administration to implementing the recommendations of the Commissioner for Fair Access – most notably including a promise of better financial support for Scottish students.

A set of “substantial reforms” will see the total student support package reach the equivalent of the living wage (£9.50/hr) over the next three years. Measures will include a support payment for students on benefits, and student loan interest will not apply during maternity leave. Students in receipt of the Care Experienced Bursary will have the option to receive their funding in 12-monthly payments, and an evaluation will determine whether this will be extended to the undergraduate package from 2024-25.

The proposed reforms explicitly include support for estranged students, who may also benefit from a new guarantor scheme offering protection in the housing market. But the government has the wider student accommodation market firmly in its sights too – the next twelve months will see a review of purpose-built student accommodation that will make recommendations on regulation, affordability, and the role of local authority.

There’s a review of post-graduate funding to come, and we’ll see the government response to the SFC’s review of provision “shortly”. This will include the development of the estates strategy proposed by SFC that will see a unique national perspective taken on university and college estates.

The £5m of new funding for digital equipment and wireless access in post compulsory education is confirmed, though apparently shorn of the parallel SFC recommendation on staff upskilling – this may follow in the full response.

And if all that wasn’t enough, student mental health measures include 80 new counsellors in universities and colleges over the next two years as part of a student mental health action plan – the first annual payment towards this will be £4.2m. And a new international education strategy will be accompanied by a Scottish Education Exchange Programme in the meantime – the longer term goal is to get Scotland back in to Erasmus+.

If you’re wondering about research support –  funding for research and development will rise to £100m over this parliament and we can expect a new innovation strategy, and a bio-energy action plan. An AI hub for life sciences will be established with £20m of funding. Scotland’s “world class universities” are cited as a core component in efforts to support the transition of the national economy to sustainability and net zero. A new NHS National Pharmaceutical Agency (due 2025) hints strongly at an expansion of Scotland’s medical research, a new Global Renewable Centre (due 2022) suggests international collaboration in that field. Key recommendations from a review of the Scottish technology ecosystem include “world-class” training and mentoring for entrepreneurs.

Finally, Scotland is going to the moon! – well, up to space, with a dedicated launch capability by 2023. And farming is also moving vertically at speed – the report highlights work done on a vertical farm led by Scotland’s Rural University College in the first 100 days of this government.

All of this will be overshadowed by news that a “legitimate and constitutional” referendum on Scottish independence will take place during this parliament – Covid permitting, during the first half of the parliament. Expect a prospectus for an independent Scotland first. But the news that the government will be reviewing the Fiscal Framework with the UK Government, removing caps on borrowing and the devolution of VAT, income tax, and NI contributions, will also have an enormous impact.

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