What’s in Scotland’s Programme for Government for HE?

For us, Scotland’s guidance to universities over Covid was the big news from yesterday - but the other major development was the publication of this year’s Programme for Government, and there’s a few bits and bobs in there of interest for the sector.

If you’re not familiar with the PfG, it’s a bit like the Queen’s Speech insofar as it represents the government’s big plan for the coming period – although there’s an inevitable focus on executive action rather than legislation given the powers of the Scottish Parliament.

The big political thrust is on jobs – framed as a “national mission to create new jobs, good jobs and green jobs”. Higher education plays an important role here – the knowledge created in universities “will be vital to how we give people the skills, and our economy the innovation, to recover”, and work will include the government’s commitment to with universities, colleges, local authorities and others to “develop a package of options, such as wage incentives, enhanced key worker support or new education or training opportunities to offer support to more young people”, in addition to the KickStart programme being developed by the UK government.

There’s a dedicated section on higher education. Free education naturally gets re-protected, but “we know that the availability of free education by itself cannot overcome other inequalities”. So it will continue to work to implement the recommendations of the Independent Commission on Widening Access, will build on work to scale up outreach activities and reforming admissions to “reflect the potential” that a young person may have, and will continue to develop a “School Engagement Framework” to support pupils into the right choices – a modern apprenticeship, college, university, or employment.

By comparison, why is the Westminster government so incapable of framing post-16 choice without decrying some of those choices as being harmful or stupid?

Free tuition is one thing, but doing its best to find ways to frame its comparatively poor record on maintenance, here the government frames the worst maintenance package in the UK as the “lowest average loan debt in the UK” (has it taken into account private sources here) and notes that “further education students have access to the UK’s most generous bursary”, which is hardly the point.

But “to make sure that all students, especially those in our most deprived communities, are provided with the financial support they need to succeed” it says it will continue to work to implement (or more accurately, delay the implementation of) the Independent Review of Student Support by… carrying out another review!

On the excuse that it needs more data, a “student income and expenditure” survey will be carried out in Scotland, and the government will even nudge the UK and Welsh Governments to do the same.

(Famously, in the absence of other data Phillip Augar’s review had to use an SIES dataset from 2014-15, and to get round the age of the data DfE officials just uprated it for inflation for him – ignoring that rent was rising faster than inflation for the whole of the intervening period… so if the Scottish Government can persuade UK counterparts, all the better).

We will also get a lifelong learning strategy, and there’s a reiteration of funding supplied so far to the sector during the pandemic – £75 million to help universities respond to the financial impact of the pandemic, £10 million for estates development, £5 million emergency student funds across further and higher education, early access to £11.4 million of higher education hardship funds, and £4.7 million for students facing hardship to access equipment to study online.

Elsewhere in the document:

  • In the context of significant growth in the sector, the government will next year conduct a review of Purpose Built Student Accommodation in parallel with wider work to “ensure rent affordability” and “improving standards” across the private rented sector.
  • It will continue to work with the Scottish Funding Council as it takes forward the recommendations of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into racial harassment in British Universities published in 2019.
  • On mental health, it will continue to deliver on its 2018 PfG commitment for more than 80 additional counsellors in colleges and universities over four years (it is currently over two‑thirds of the way to meeting that commitment.)
  • And it will work hard to salvage what it can from ongoing EU negotiations given “the collaborations that our universities have established with research partners across the continent.”

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