SCOTTISH universities – and students generally – have every reason to welcome the latest figures on admissions.
They show that 36,120 applicants have been accepted to Scottish institutions, up nearly 3 per cent on the same point last year.
The number of Scots applicants securing places totals 25,550, a new record, while the number of applicants from the rest of the UK who have to pay fees of up to £9,000 a year, is up by 9 per cent on last year and now stands at its highest level since 2009.
This increased level of applications from the fee-paying rest of the UK is an encouraging validation of the range and quality of degree courses offered north of the Border and the learning environment on Scottish campuses.
However, these encouraging statistics notwithstanding, concern has arisen over how fair the clearing system may be to Scottish students. There is particular disquiet that more places appear to be made available through clearing to applicants from the rest of the UK than to Scottish students. This is because the Scottish funding system caps the number of Scottish and EU students, but not the number of fee-paying students from the rest of the UK. This suggests an anomaly whereby parents of a Scottish student with the requisite grades and who are willing to pay have been refused entry to the course of the student’s choice but English parents willing to pay will get their child on the course. This is down to the legislation currently in place.
This opens the system to a broad objection over the additional pressure on universities to decide their intake on the basis of where the student comes from, as well as by their academic merits.
What has given cause for specific concern is that hundreds of courses in Scotland were still accepting applications from people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland through the clearing process last week, but a relatively small number were taking applications from Scots.
Lucy Hunter, a freelance analyst and a former head of higher education, science and student support for the Scottish Government, points out a potential problem in terms of fairness; individual Scottish applicants being turned away in order to avoid breaching the cap on subsidised places, while our universities continue to admit in unlimited numbers any students from the rest of the UK who are paying significantly less than the full cost of their course.
Thus, while the administration can point to record numbers of Scottish students being accepted, there are potential pressures building here which call for vigilance.
We must guard against an admission process which leads to an increasing intake of students who are less qualified than Scots who are being turned away.
The administration and in particular the Scottish Funding Council need to ensure that this potential anomaly is most rigorously monitored.
Talks about Nato are welcome
The Scottish Government wants an independent
nuclear-free Scotland to be a member of Nato, but there have been doubts raised as to how easy this would be, so it is wholly welcome that Scottish Government officials held a meeting with senior Nato executives in Brussels last month to discuss membership.
But any meeting only becomes significant if it leads to greater clarity for voters on what independence would mean for Scotland’s defence arrangements. The Holyrood administration believes that as Scotland is already in the alliance as part of the UK, it should not have to start from scratch in securing membership in the event of a Yes vote. However, as with the European Union there is deep uncertainty as to whether an independent Scotland would need to apply as a new candidate or whether terms could be negotiated as an existing member.
These are cardinal issues on which voters are entitled to expect the fullest possible clarity. Within the SNP there is still a strong division of opinion on the terms and conditions that may come with Nato membership, in particular the stationing of Nato troops and conventional military equipment on Scottish soil. And would a “nuclear free” Scotland allow Nato access to Scottish waters for vessels carrying nuclear weapons?
It would be naïve to expect any early resolution: this is likely to involve a series of meetings with Nato officials to explore the consequences in detail. Whatever the views of the respective campaigns, voters need to have clarity for an informed decision to be made, both on our membership status and also on the terms and conditions that Nato membership could entail.