Student leader Liam Burns gets real about university funding
Following a confrontational year for the student lobby, NUS Scotland President Liam Burns could be forgiven for enjoying the calm after the storm. After months of intense campaigning, plus one or two public spats, the body secured a significant win when the Scottish Government agreed to allocate its £30m pot of student cash as it proposed.
But now is no time for complacency, the chief warns. Student support in Scotland is open to threat from several angles and they must be proactive.
The events surrounding the then Education Secretary’s October announcement illustrate Burns’ point. In response to pressure from the NUS, backed up by opposition parties, Fiona Hyslop revised her original plans and put forward a package in which loans to the poorest students would increase by up to £622, independent learners would see their income rise by up to £1,227 and an extra £2m would be made available for childcare. The relative good news was pre-empted, however, by a stark warning from Sir Andrew Cubie, author of the Cubie report that led to the abolition of tuition fees in 2000. Sir Andrew called for an independent review of university funding and said some form of graduate levy might have to be reintroduced. His intervention followed calls from former head of Universities Scotland, Lord Sutherland and political scientist Professor James Mitchell for tuition fees to be reinstated. Add to these developments a review of how much universities can charge south of the border and the outlook for Scottish students is worrying, Burns says. As the spectre of fees is raised, the student body needs to address the issues head on, he believes.
Indeed the 24-year-old Glenrothes man stood for election last spring on this very issue.
In his manifesto, the Heriot-Watt Physics graduate expressed his frustration at the NUS always being on the back foot, reacting to other people’s agendas. Under his direction, he pledged it would be leading the debate, not following.
“I’m really concerned that we’re sleepwalking into a time where universities are claiming they’re not funded well enough. They’ve got a review in England that will, whatever way it lands – whether it’s NUS’s way or otherwise and there’s a lifting of the cap – result in more money down south. And our widening access record is pretty poor in comparison to the rest of the UK. So what I was really conscious of was us sleep walking into someone else’s debate. If we don’t start laying out our stall then someone else is going to define it for us. To a certain extent we’re on that knife edge [now] because we’ve already seen Lord Sutherland and Professor Mitchell, all trying to lay out their views.
“What the whole sector struggles with is there’s not a platform to debate these issues yet. So everyone’s just putting their opinion in, throwing it into a void. So that’s a major issue for me.” The time has come for an informed and grown-up discussion about funding, Burns argues. There is no forum for that to happen at present, which is why he thinks an independent review of the sector is the only way forward.
“The [student support] announcement, yeah it was awesome, but it’s still not enough.
Students are still living below the poverty line and actually legislated to live below the poverty line. Widening access is worse than the UK and retention also is a really big problem. It’s only Northern Ireland that we’re ahead of in terms of students dropping out after their first year. So there are huge issues to deal with there. And that’s why we’re warming to this idea of a review but it’s got to be a review that puts student support at the core, not just lining universities’ pockets.” The review process would not be easy for students, Burns admits. It would force them to face some uncomfortable truths about funding, one of which might be the necessity for graduates to share some of the financial burden. Tuition fees should be ruled out as a starting point, he argues, but a graduate tax is something they could be willing to consider.
“What does come up and what Andrew Cubie was really helpful in differentiating is that there’s a difference between a student contribution and a graduate contribution… If you go to our first principles, what our policy is, we believe in progressive taxation, it should just come from those who can afford to contribute back… So [that is] something that we are willing to discuss, and I don’t want to give ground on it yet but what I am saying to people is, we’re willing to discuss it, is how graduates that see a genuine financial [benefit] contribute back into higher education and further education as well. That’s why I think a review is needed because there are so many issues around, first of all, where do we get the money from?
“That’s what I’m trying to get across to our membership, to say: ‘Look, if we go for a review, it’s going to bring up some very uncomfortable discussions’.” From speaking to students, the president believes many would not be opposed to giving something back to the sector: “And also, a lot of students have come back and said: ‘Do you know what, if I’m genuinely seeing the benefit then I’ve not got a problem with paying a fair share of that’. So I think in the past we’ve not done ourselves a service by sensationalising it, by saying: ‘Oh students are so against this’ and very much all about free education when that’s not the reality of what students are saying on the ground.
“So I suppose what I’m saying is, by no means are we saying: ‘We should have to pay’ and we want to look to the public purse and business first. But in a debate that includes how do graduates contribute, we’re not going to throw our hands up and say that’s horrific and evil.” Tuition fees clearly remain a red line issue for the NUS but it seems a graduate contribution is an area where it could be willing to compromise. Support for students is the new president’s priority but he is under no illusions about the funding challenge facing the sector.
When universities are pushed against the wall, he believes it will be things like learning and teaching and student support services that sustain the cuts, so it is in students’ interests to help address the shortfall.
The Scottish Government has up to now ruled out a review of the sector but with the announcement of Hyslop’s replacement by Mike Russell last week, Burns is hopeful that the new Cabinet Secretary will be more amenable.
“He’s coming in at a bit of a critical time for education and actually, he’s got a lot to try and deal with so we’ll be making some calls around what we think he should be dealing with in office… We’re obviously coming into a time of public cuts. People are calling for more money for the sector in general and there’s going to be some really tough decisions coming up about how we find that money because money doesn’t grow on trees. So he’s got to take that bull by the horns and I think that will mean taking a fundamental look at how students and the sector is funded, which I know Fiona had ruled out. I’m hoping that he might be perhaps more enthused to look at that.” And that will not be the only issue on the agenda at his first meeting with Russell. Burns welcomes last week’s announcement by the Funding Council of £11.9m in redistributed funds for college bursaries but with colleges requesting £20m, he warns that it is not enough.
The NUS will be taking the support theme forward in a report to be published in February, ‘Ten Years on: Still in the Red’. It is also planning a ‘Day of Action’ this week where they will try to get university and college principals to publicly call for more funding for students. On the top-up fees review front, the body is calling on all MPs to sign a pledge that they will not vote to increase fees in England when the report is published after the general election. Gearing up to make it a key election issue, the NUS is compiling all MPs’ majorities and relating them to the number of students living in their constituencies. Amongst Scottish MPs they have so far received the support of Labour’s Nigel Griffiths and the Lib Dems’ Charles Kennedy and Burns says abstaining on this issue because of the ‘West Lothian Question’ will not wash with Scottish students.
“That’s not good enough. And actually, if they’re trying to look out for Scotland’s interests and top-up fees rise, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Government cut the amount of funding they put in and that’s going to have Barnett consequentials. The thing is, it’s not an English issue only so the West Lothian Question is a bit of a red herring. It very much affects Scottish students.”