Scotland, Covid uncertainties and the Brexit black hole

Mary Senior
UCU Scotland official

This is a worrying and uncertain time for staff and students in post-16 education across the UK. In Scotland, where education is devolved and with our distinct higher education system and funding structures, the Covid-19 pandemic is bringing additional challenges.

Scottish domiciled students don’t pay tuition fees for an undergraduate degree, and their period of study is normally four years for a typical degree course. Since 2012 undergraduate students from the rest of the UK have paid tuition fees to their institution at similar levels to those charged in English universities. Given EU rules, the Scottish government had to allow students from other EU states to receive tuition fee free higher education on a par with domestic students. So this has meant that teaching funding for Scottish and EU students is provided by the Scottish government’s teaching grant, via the Scottish Funding Council, with Scottish and EU student numbers capped.

Given the consistent underfunding of the teaching grant – the 2019 budget saw a 1.79 per cent real terms cut, and 2020 saw a standstill budget for HE with a zero per cent increase – universities have understandably looked to increase income from commercial, conferencing and, most importantly, from international students. And they’ve done well. Scotland’s universities are world renowned, and attract students from around the globe to come to live and study in Scotland. This has been a great strength, and the international student tuition fee income has become vital to enable universities to deliver the teaching, knowledge exchange and research they do so successfully.

But now the pandemic, lockdown and its travel restrictions bring so much uncertainty as to whether new students from Scotland, the rest of the UK, the EU, and the wider world will turn up in September for the new academic year. Brexit is an added complication. The UK’s departure from the EU means that there is no longer an obligation on Scotland to pay for the tuition of EU students. The Scottish government is continuing to do so for EU students starting their study in Scottish universities in the 2020/21 academic year, and has committed to covering tuition fees for the length of their degree courses.

However, there is a big decision to make as to what happens to EU students entering Scottish higher education in autumn 2021. UCU, along with NUS and Universities Scotland, has been making the case for the money that covers the tuition of EU students to stay in higher education after Brexit. Indeed, only last Monday (29 June 2020), the union raised this with first minister Nicola Sturgeon once again, during the biannual meeting the STUC has with Scottish government. The first minister responded that the issue is still under consideration, and that the government is taking legal advice on the matter. However she did indicate that the last thing the government wants to do is to take funding out of the sector. UCU will continue to make the case to keep the £97million of funding which currently provides the tuition for EU students firmly in the sector. Given Covid-19 uncertainty, the last thing we need is a bigger Brexit black hole.

We’ve all seen UCU’s research, by London Economics, estimating a 47% decrease in the number of international students coming to Scotland, meaning just under 9,500 fewer first year international student enrolments in the coming academic year. The London Economics report estimates that this, along with the other effects of the current crisis, will lead to a £251 million financial hole in the sector for the year 2020/21. The analysis produced by the Scottish Funding Council predicts the impact could be even worse, with forecasts ranging from £383.5 million to £651million losses in a worst case scenario. As a union we are doing all we can to make the case to government to support the university sector. UCU welcomed the £75million of new funding announced for university research in Scotland back in May. We’re continuing to urge our members to contact their local MPs and MSPs to keep up the pressure on government to support the sector.

We’ve also shown that introducing tuition fees is not the answer. Our research published at the start of July showed that two-thirds of Scottish university applicants would be put off going to university if tuition fees were re-introduced. Instead we’re pushing for government – both at UK and Scottish levels – to underwrite the sector so it continues to offer education to young people and those returning to learning, and keeps its own workers in employment.

In Scotland there is recognition of the importance of the post-16 education sector. The Scottish government’s Economic Recovery Advisory Group in its recent report called for an ‘education-led recovery’ and for protection for Scotland’s universities and colleges. We need this greater financial support for higher education to materialise soon, as we know that universities are already taking steps to make cuts. This includes not renewing the army of fixed term and hourly paid staff who deliver vital teaching and tutoring to undergraduates, as well as pay and increment freezes, and other reductions to terms and conditions. A number of universities are also contemplating significant job losses. UCU will always look to protect jobs and vigorously oppose compulsory redundancies. The perilous financial situation is why we launched our Fund the Future campaign calling on government to support post-16 education through this difficult time.

As educators, we know the transformational powers of post-16 study, the positive impacts it has for individuals, communities and the economy. We also know how our institutions support local communities, offering employment and education, contributing to local economies. In addition, we need to underline the importance of university research, the critical thinking graduates universities produce, and how this helps us to understand the world in which we live. At a time where fake news, misinformation and polarisation is rife, we must highlight the role of universities to inform, educate and empower. This is the case we’ve been making to the Scottish government, its advisors, employers, and other stakeholders.

We’re at a critical point, and to deliver that education-led recovery, we really do need to see the government funding to enable our sector to work.

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