The international reputation of Scottish universities could be at risk if UK legislation is passed allowing private providers similar to the Trump University to offer degrees, MSPs have been warned.
The Higher Education and Research Bill will create a new Office of Students (OFS), which will be able to award degree-conferring powers to new for-profit institutions south of the border.
Although different funding rules mean the move would not apply in Scotland, key figures from the sector told Holyrood’s Education Committee that Scottish universities could be affected by an overall “diminution” of the UK’s higher education brand.
Mary Senior, of the University and College Union Scotland, said the change could see a “university of Trump in England”.
President-elect Donald Trump’s now-defunct for-profit university is currently subject to legal action in the US by former customers who allege the institution misled them.
She told the committee: “One of the things the Bill provides for are new providers and private providers into the sector in England, so at one extreme we’re going to have a university of Trump in England.
“That’s in effect what the Bill provides for - it might seem sensationalist to say that, but those pressures are going to be there. It’s deeply worrying.”
Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said: “There is a reputational issue here for the United Kingdom, particularly as we look to Brexit and beyond.
“One of the huge brand advantages that the United Kingdom has is the integrity of the reputation of our universities.
“You don’t get to call yourself a university unless you have jumped over some pretty high hurdles.
“Albeit it doesn’t directly apply in Scotland, I do have a worry about the diminution of the UK brand and the effect that would have on Scottish universities if institutions are not given an appropriately high hurdle to jump over before they can call themselves universities and offer degrees.”
He added: “If Britain allows the brand to be diminished, then I think we lose a huge competitive advantage internationally as we look towards an uncertain world.”
The committee was gathering evidence on the legislative consent memorandum (LCM) for the Bill.
The LCM seeks consent from the Scottish Parliament for UK Government amendments to the legislation which provide for the OFS to rate Scottish universities under the Teaching Excellence Framework if it receives consent from Scottish ministers to do so.
This will provide for joint working between the OFS and the Scottish Funding Council where appropriate and will clarify the Secretary of State’s power to set conditions in providing funding for research.