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by Claire McPherson, Director of Universities Scotland
21 June 2024
Associate Feature: Devolution has given universities opportunities to do things differently, to Scotland’s great benefit

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Associate Feature: Devolution has given universities opportunities to do things differently, to Scotland’s great benefit

The 90s were a significant decade for higher education. In the lead up to devolution, Scotland gained four new universities, with much to offer the wider sector, as part of the “post-92” group. A couple of years later, Scottish university research made news around the world with the birth of Dolly the Sheep, the first successfully cloned mammal. As Holyrood celebrates its 25th anniversary, industry-relevant teaching, high-level skills and world-leading research are still proud hallmarks of a Scottish university education. The contribution that higher education makes to Scotland has grown enormously over that period with the support, and sometimes constructive challenge, of Holyrood and each of its political parties.

Devolution has allowed HE policy to diverge from the rest of the UK, embodying a different set of values. Students are partners, not consumers, in their higher education. This is written into the foundations of our distinctly different quality enhancement framework. Whilst there is competition between universities, institutions are just as quick to collaborate for the greater good. There are countless positive examples, which are unique to the devolved context: 

• research pooling allowed us to be greater than the sum of 
our parts when it came to research impact
• the creation of a single point of entry streamlined SMEs’ search for the right innovation partner
• more than a decade of shared services and joint procurement has ensured value for money
• close collaboration with the college sector has enabled advanced entry in learners’ interest, 
• joint work to introduce the most progressive admissions policies in the UK, has widened access and made entry more accessible to those with care experience and from other under-represented backgrounds.

Before we look ahead to the next 25 years, we should take stock of where we are now: 
• Study opportunities for Scots are at near record levels, with the highest percentage of Scottish applicants at university at the start of term over the last ten years. 
• 85% of university research is judged to be world-leading or internationally excellent. 
• Higher education exports were worth £1,015 billion in 2021, equivalent to 3% of all of Scotland’s exports. Higher education is Scotland’s 6th biggest export to non-EU countries. 
• Scottish HEI’s work directly with over 17,000 SME’s, 14,000 of which are in Scotland, driving innovation and productivity through knowledge exchange.
• Overall, Scotland’s universities made an economic contribution of £15.3 billion to the UK economy in 2019/20. 

The university sector in Scotland is ambitious to build on these strengths; an aspiration we hope has cross-party support. For Parliament and Government, supporting the sector to meet those aspirations starts with shifting perceptions. Beyond education, we would love to see policymaking and scrutiny structures reflect the variety of ways universities contribute to Scotland. Universities are a major force in the economy, a major exporter, fundamental to innovation, productivity and growth. Our research base and academic expertise act as the engine through which Scotland will meet social, economic and environmental challenges. Our global reputation fosters international partnerships and acts as a beacon for talent and investment. Indeed, it is hard to consider a policy area where universities are not already making significant impact. Recognition of this, through a flexible and more holistic policy and parliamentary environment would be welcome.

We would also welcome moves from all parties to seek out and build on common ground, in Scotland’s wider interests. Universities have been party to the benefits of cross-party policy, in the form of the trailblazing Fresh Talent initiative between 2004 and 2008, which gave universities a policy framework to help address Scotland’s demographic challenges. It’s an exemplar of what can be gained from political pragmatism and a Parliament designed to support consensus building.

Holyrood’s twenty-fifth anniversary is a timely opportunity to reflect on past achievements and to make sure we’re working together to channel that experience to create the right conditions for Scotland’s future. 

This article is sponsored by Universities Scotland

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