No point pretending on Scottish university funding

There was little cause for optimism for Scottish universities at Wednesday's education committee hearing, but at least the committee is listening

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

Gloomy news for Scottish universities. Faced with questions about the falling unit of resource for home students, higher education minister Jamie Hepburn replied that it was going to be difficult to do anything about it – “and there’s no point pretending anything otherwise”.

The comments came as the Scottish Education, Children and Young People Committee continued its inquiry into universities this morning. In the previous session of the inquiry in September, University of Aberdeen principal George Boyne – representing Universities Scotland, and since named UCEA chair – criticised the lack of long-term planning in the Scottish funding model, noting that in Scotland international students are subsidising home students as well as research.

Today, Labour MSP Michael Marra took Hepburn to task over REF results, which have meant that Scotland’s “comparative capture of UKRI spending is declining”, although it is still above the proportion you would get if distributing R&D money on a per capita basis. Marra linked this to the frozen unit of resource over the last 13 years – a real terms plunge – saying that everyone in Scottish universities he speaks to points the finger this way.

Hepburn’s sole piece of advice for the sector was the oft heard refrain – and hopefully this is not going to become a generic talking point and an excuse for doing more with less – to make a better fist of promoting its successes.

Another issue that had reared its head in the previous session was the vexed question of differential fees – in September the panel had bemoaned the vast reserves that some Scottish universities were said to have stashed away, and wondered aloud whether the government should think about increasing funding in a more targeted way. Universities Scotland last week strongly warned the committee away from this idea:

It could distort student choice, it misunderstands the role of reserves in higher education and it would expose some institutions to even greater risk due to over-reliance on international students by embedding cross-subsidy and marketisation as a defining structural element of Scotland’s higher education funding model.

It would raise very serious alarm bells in the sector if the Scottish Government took measures that would knowingly accelerate individual institutions’ exposure to market volatility and geopolitical events.

Hepburn was happy to confirm that the idea was not under consideration by the government.

Once all had agreed to put a pin in the question of public spending, they then proceeded to discuss over-reliance on international student fees from a resilience point of view. We were told that the forthcoming Scottish internalisation strategy will address this, but there’s no date for when to expect it. The new rule seems to be that if you mention diversifying student recruitment, someone will mention Confucius Institutes, and we were not disappointed.

On accommodation shortages, Hepburn noted that he had engaged directly with universities on the issue, particularly University of Glasgow. He pointed to the ongoing PBSA review which will inform a wider student accommodation strategy.

There was time for a very quick question on whether the Scottish government would extend funding for mental health counsellors in universities, a question which SFC chief executive Karen Watt had noted in September was still being discussed. The minister reported that it was still being discussed. There was no time for follow up or for further questioning on the topic, sadly, partly due to technical issues earlier in the session. And that was that.

The committee’s inquiry into universities has involved drawing on evidence from across the sector – NUS Scotland, UCU Scotland and Universities Scotland among others – about the issues facing higher education, and then putting the issues to the minister responsible for university funding and policy.

The contrast with the recent tone of the House of Commons Education Committee, which could – charitably – be characterised as finding the issues that the media (The Telegraph, primarily) has with the sector, and then asking DfE how they are going to oblige universities to fix them. We’ll be keeping a close eye on whether there might be scope for this to change in the future, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.

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