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by Chris Marshall
18 November 2021
University Challenge: The road ahead for Scotland's higher education sector

University Challenge: The road ahead for Scotland's higher education sector

When St Andrews was named the UK’s top university earlier this year, it marked a significant achievement for a Scottish higher education sector which had just come through an existential crisis.

Breaking Oxbridge’s 30-year stranglehold on The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide rankings, the institution was praised for its world-leading research and outstanding levels of student satisfaction.

Yet for many of Scotland’s universities and colleges, the real success story was just managing to survive the pandemic. Much had been made in the previous few years about the impact of Brexit – the inevitable drop-off in numbers of EU students, the implications for foreign academics, the future of the Erasmus exchange scheme – but no one predicted Covid and how it would completely upend everything on campus.

Just a few months before the University of St Andrews received its accolade, a report from a cross-party committee of MPs concluded that insolvency had been a “very real prospect” for a number of Scottish institutions in the middle of 2020. The Scottish Affairs Committee said that without the financial support of both the UK and Scottish Governments, some universities “may not have survived”. 

But while it’s hoped the worst of the pandemic is now over, challenges remain for the sector, not least the unfolding impact of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union and long-term funding issues.

Alastair Sim, of Universities Scotland, which represents university principals, welcomes the recognition won by St Andrews and other leading Scottish institutions but says it shouldn’t paint a false picture of the sector.

“I would hope that government doesn’t take it as a sign that things are just fine because, actually, I think these levels of achievement are being done despite an unsustainable funding situation that has really got quite markedly worse since 2014/15,” he says.

“If you look under the bonnet at the health of Scottish universities, you’ll find they’re keeping the show on the road and doing the absolute best they can for students, but on a very stretched resource.”

It’s not just Scotland’s universities which have undergone challenges – colleges, too, have endured a difficult few years ever since a major re-organisation of the further education (FE) sector under then education minister Mike Russell. 

Earlier this year, umbrella group Colleges Scotland welcomed a report from the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), which recommended multi-year funding agreements and longer-term planning, something those in the university sector are also calling for. 

And while the number of college students going on to university has increased this year, there were fewer employment opportunities in some sectors due to the pandemic.

Publishing its universities report earlier this year, the Scottish Affairs Committee noted that public sector funding for higher education in Scotland had reduced by 12 per cent in real terms in the past seven years. And while the SNP’s policy of free tuition places a cap on the number of Scottish students, only 90 per cent of the cost of teaching comes from the Scottish Government, leaving universities to plug the gap. 

If you look under the bonnet at the health of Scottish universities, you’ll find they’re keeping the show on the road and doing the absolute best they can for students, but on a very stretched resource.


The country’s higher education institutions received £1.1bn between them from the SFC for 2021/22, a sum unlikely to increase significantly in the coming years due to pandemic-related pressures on public finances.

Sim says universities currently receive £157m a year less than what it costs them to provide teaching to Scottish students. 

“Amazing things are being achieved on a thin resource and a resource that’s getting thinner,” he says.

“It does sometimes worry me that the very strong performance we’re making and reputational benefit we bring to Scotland masks the fact that this is a sector under severe financial stress, where half of institutions are repeatedly presenting deficits.” 

Before Brexit, European students coming to Scotland had their tuition paid for by the Scottish Government under a quirk in EU law which meant universities could charge students from the rest of the UK upwards of £9,000 a year but had to treat those from further afield the same as Scots. With the ending of that free tuition, applications from EU students slumped by 40 per cent this year.

Universities have not been slow to make up for funding shortfalls in the past by recruiting higher numbers of international students, especially those from China, who often pay more than £20,000 a year in fees, a figure which rises to more than £30,000 a year for medical students. 

International students account for more than 16 per cent of all income across Scotland’s universities, but it’s a funding stream which can be precarious. Following a tightening of immigration laws and the rules around post-study working in 2012, the number of Indian students coming to the UK fell by a quarter.

It was against that background that in 2014, Scotland’s universities wrote to the Smith Commission calling for immigration to be partially devolved. Some of those concerns have since been addressed with the introduction of a new two-year post-work study visa by the UK Government. 

In their report, MPs on the Scottish Affairs Committee called on universities to seek out ways of “diversifying income streams away from potentially volatile international student fees” without sacrificing teaching and research in the name of “commercialised corporate ventures”. 

Another consequence of leaving the EU has been the loss of the Erasmus exchange scheme, much to the disappointment of many of those working in the sector. While the UK Government’s replacement, named after pioneering mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing, is now up and running, there has been criticism that it doesn’t allow foreign students to come to the UK and, unlike Erasmus, doesn’t extend to academics.

Mary Senior, Scotland official for the University and College Union (UCU), says the replacement for Erasmus is “really disappointing”.

“We’ve called for Scotland to be able to rejoin Erasmus,” she says. “The Scottish Government and Funding Council have agreed to try and develop a new international exchange scheme. We need to get this up and running because it feels like there are big gaps between Erasmus ending and what’s happening at the moment – it’s frustrating.

“The Leave campaign didn’t have a plan; they didn’t think through the ramifications of Brexit on education. When the Scottish Affairs Committee did their inquiry and we gave evidence, we weren’t really asked about Erasmus because we didn’t at that point realise the plan was to ditch it. Turing was back-of-an-envelope sort of stuff.” 

While the ending of Erasmus took many in the sector by surprise, there is now growing pressure on the UK Government over the issue. In its final report, the Scottish Affairs Committee called for the £110m Turing scheme to be expanded to cover inward bound international students as well as provide opportunities for academic staff.

Pete Wishart MP, chair of the committee, says: “In all the evidence, one of the things that came out very strongly was just how late in the day (the decision on Erasmus) came and how it was unexpected. There were people who came to the committee and said they couldn’t believe it because they had heard reassurances only weeks before that Britain would remain in Erasmus.

“The one-way nature of (Turing) made it seem insufficient compared to what we enjoyed under Erasmus and we asked the UK Government to look at it. We’re awaiting a response, but we’re not all that hopeful that they will agree with us.”

Speaking as committee chair and perhaps giving a more diplomatic answer than he would as an SNP MP, Wishart says Brexit has been “a mixed bag” for Scotland’s universities, with the drop-off in EU students a particular worry.

“The international mixture of students we see on Scottish campuses is something we celebrate and welcome, so it’s obviously something that should greatly concern us,” he says.

While it has become more difficult to attract EU staff since Brexit, Sim admits there hasn’t been a “catastrophic” drop-off in European talent coming to Scotland’s universities, although some courses, particularly those in STEM subjects, have found it harder to fill places once taken by EU students.

He hopes the Scottish Government can help stimulate interest in those courses with the targeted use of scholarships to attract EU and other international students.   

But Senior says that from the time of the Brexit vote, there was a feeling among staff, many of whom had worked in Scotland for decades, that they were no longer welcome.

“We saw it from 2016 onwards, from the vote,” she says. “It’s maybe more anecdotal, but we definitely have reports from members who felt they weren’t welcome anymore. They felt this hostile environment and the negativity towards EU and other international workers. People who had lived and worked in the UK for 20-30 years were suddenly feeling unwelcome.”

But if Brexit was the challenge universities saw coming and had to try to ameliorate the impacts of, then Covid was something else entirely. As early as January last year, two months before the first lockdown was announced, a Chinese student was treated in Edinburgh after becoming unwell following a visit to family in Wuhan.

Education doesn’t observe borders and boundaries,” Senior says. “It’s about collaboration, knowledge and exchange – no one has a monopoly on the best ideas.  


By early March, a number of colleges and universities had moved to online learning, a system which remained in place until the easing of Covid restrictions led to the introduction of hybrid arrangements.

The UCU, whose members voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action earlier this month in a dispute over pay and conditions, has repeatedly raised concerns about Covid on campuses and its impact on staff.

“The pandemic has made workloads that were already unmanageable, significantly worse,” Senior says.

“There’s this idea that remote learning is easier, and I’ve been really frustrated by this idea of academics sitting in their pyjamas when, actually, it’s increased workloads.”

And while the return of students this autumn did not lead to a large spike in cases, Senior says her members are clear that they want to maintain a cautious approach.

“We were really concerned we would get a repeat of last year in terms of (Covid) outbreaks,” she says. “We can take some satisfaction that we haven’t seen mass outbreaks on campus. However, the Scottish Government’s Covid Group’s clear message is to continue with that very cautious approach. 

“I’ve seen a lot of good practice (on campuses) but then I’ve also seen a room where the windows were really high up and needed a window pole and there wasn’t one in the room. We also know there’s lots of rooms where windows have been painted shut (in the past) and that’s an issue…We want universities to be inclusive, there are older staff and students and those that are more vulnerable, that’s why it’s absolutely vital we continue with the mitigations through the winter because this pandemic is not over.”

While the past few years have been difficult for the sector, Scotland’s universities, the oldest of which date back to the fifteenth century, have overcome challenges in the past. Despite the ongoing difficulties of leaving the EU and of the pandemic, they are institutions which will continue to look both forward and outward. 

“Education doesn’t observe borders and boundaries,” Senior says. “It’s about collaboration, knowledge and exchange – no one has a monopoly on the best ideas.”  

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