Nicola Sturgeon’s higher education legacy

After eight years as First Minister, Sturgeon leaves a lot still to be done for students and universities in Scotland

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Scottish First Ministers appear to be permitted a maximum of one flagship higher education policy.

Alex Salmond, of course carved his into an actual rock, which until recently stood on the campus of Heriot-Watt University in Riccarton, Edinburgh:

The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students

Nicola Sturgeon never resorted to stonemasonry or the words of Burns to express her ambition – but she has been personally committed to the cause of fair access to higher education in Scotland, and has become associated with the goal of 20 per cent of students entering university to be from Scotland’s 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds.

During yesterday’s resignation speech she chose this as a key achievement of her political career:

Young people from deprived backgrounds have never had a better chance of going to university than now

Access in Scotland

Sturgeon’s administration appointed Peter Scott as the first Commissioner for Fair Access in 2016. His first annual report is worth reading as a summary of the state of the nation at that point – it set the target above along with milestones, the first of which (16 per cent of students entering university from Scotland’s 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds by 2021) was achieved on schedule (the next is to reach 18 per cent by 2026).

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Of course this conceals a great deal of variation at provider level, and there are numerous issues with measuring these variations. The plot below shows offer rates for SIMD quintile 1 for UCAS applications only – as many students arrive at Scottish universities via articulation agreements with FE colleges this understates what is happening.

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The other issue that access and participation staff at providers tend to raise is the choice of SIMD as a measure. There are very few areas in SIMD quintile 1 outside of Scotland’s central belt – and for providers that recruit locally outside of these areas this presents a problem.

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Funding and maintenance

Sturgeon presided over an independent review of student income, which recommended that students should benefit from a Minimum Student Income of £8,100 (linked to the minimum wage) and have access to benefits while studying. The government welcomed the review, and has made some further beneficial changes to maintenance arrangements (including a welcome raise to loan repayment thresholds) – though it can be argued that this is just the beginning of compensating for the SNP decision to abolish the old student endowment system in 2017, and that minimum income applies only to students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

For the 2022-23 academic year funding per student in Scotland, for universities where an Outcome Agreement is in place, is determined on the basis of subject of study – and funded places within each subject of study are allocated by the Scottish Funding Council. Student numbers are constrained in Scotland, but even so there is a substantial (up to around £7,000 depending on the subject) funding gap based on the amount it actually costs to teach each student.

A 27 per cent real terms cut in funding (a real terms fall of £2,325) for home students is a big part of the reason we’ve seen an expansion in international student numbers – particularly at postgraduate level – in an attempt to balance the books. A similar drop in real terms “research excellence” allocations since 2014-15 means that international fees do a lot of the heavy lifting there too.

A three-phase future?

The Scottish Funding Council’s “Coherence and Stability Review”, set up to examine the way the tertiary system functions as a whole, pointed the way to a more integrated future – with the existing links between FE and HE augmented with a more fundamental commitment to harmonise approaches to funding.

It’s another one of these reports that seem to hang around for a while – we’ve not yet had a full response to the review from the government (though certain aspects, such as a review of student accommodation) are already going ahead. Budgetary pressures, as always, seem to be holding the government back from realising ambitions.

In all, Nicola Sturgeon’s choice of access progress as a particular highlight obscures a lot of work that still needs to be done. Her administration has asked a lot of the right questions – her legacy for the sector will be what is done with the answers.

One response to “Nicola Sturgeon’s higher education legacy

  1. This is a very kind assessment! The continued approach of no tuition fees is effectively crippling HEIs in Scotland and the approach to research funding also places Scottish HEIs at a disadvantage compared to other parts of the UK. The need to recruit large numbers of international students to subsidise home students and research increases pressure, feeds a feeling of “marketisation” of HE and is ethically questionable.

    The WP achievements and aims are commendable. However bearing in mind that students from WP backgrounds will often need additional support (for varied and good reasons) and this adds to the pressures on learning and teaching caused by the funding issues.

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