UNIVERSITIES will be required to work more closely together and may be hit with financial penalties for failing to widen access under a new £1 billion funding package announced today.
Unveiling the money allocated to individual universities, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) said the deal came with a series of “asks” from the Scottish Government, including firm commitments to widen access and improve employability.
SFC chief executive Mark Batho also called for closer collaboration between universities and said the controversial issue of merger was “definitely not off the table”.
Overall funding for teaching and research will be £1.016bn in the next academic year.
However, each university will have to agree to an individually tailored “outcome agreement”, under which they will be expected to fall in line with the Scottish Government’s reforms of higher and further education.
Education secretary Mike Russell said: “This funding comes with the agreement that universities will work with us to take forward these reforms, for example through improving the learner journey, widening access and enhancing collaboration with industry.”
Mr Batho said the funding came with a number of strings attached, which could see universities subject to fines for failing to do what was asked of them.
Asked if he would explore financial penalties to make sure the institutions met their targets, he said: “There will need to be a negotiation made, but, plainly, over time, we expect delivery.
“If it doesn’t have any teeth, it won’t be worth the paper it’s written on. Whether it will be financial or not, remains to be seen.”
He said there would an increased drive for collaboration between institutions to remove “undue overlap” where nearby universities provided the same courses.
On the subject of mergers, he said: “[They] are very definitely not off the table. If [universities] want to merge, we will be very supportive of that. What we’re not doing is telling universities that they have got to merge. When I wrote to Abertay and Dundee, I asked them to look at the possibility for merger – I did not tell them and that remains the position. Are we going to see mergers? I honestly don’t know.”
The £1.016bn for 2012-13 compares with a budget of £956m for 2011-12, although the introduction of fees for UK students from outside Scotland makes direct comparisons difficult.
Mary Senior, from the University and College Union, warned against too much political interference. She said: “It is fair the Scottish Government expects certain standards to follow this generous settlement, but it must be very careful not to be overly prescriptive or directive about the learning, research and teaching that goes on in universities.”