Jenny Gilruth admits the SNP's free tuition policy is creating 'challenges' for universities

Education secretary was quizzed by MSPs on financial pressures facing sector

Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth has admitted the SNP’s flagship policy of free tuition for Scottish students is creating “challenges” for universities.

The minister made the remark as she was being quizzed by MSPs on pressures in the higher education sector in the wake of fresh funding cuts.

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During the hearing, Ms Gilruth also signalled she was currently only minded to take forward “parts” of the Hayward review on the future of school qualifications, with the rest of it still under consideration ahead of a long-awaited debate on the plans in the “next few weeks”.

Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The future of free university tuition, which has cost close to £3 billion since the SNP came to power in 2007, has been under the spotlight since higher education resource funding was slashed by 6 per cent in last month’s budget.

Ministers confirmed this week that support would end for 1,200 extra places created for Scots during the pandemic, but universities fear further reductions could be required to plug a £28.5 million hole in their finances.

Giving evidence to Holyrood’s education committee on Wednesday, Ms Gilruth said the pressures were being accentuated by tighter immigration rules introduced by the UK Government, which were “harming” the ability of Scottish universities to attract international students, who pay the high fees which universities rely on to help support places for Scots.

Responding to questions from Conservative Liam Kerr, the education secretary said she recognised arguments relating to “cross-fertilisation of Scottish places”, which she said was “not a new feature” of higher education funding.

University students studying in a circleUniversity students studying in a circle
University students studying in a circle

She said: "It has been the case for a number of years, and bluntly it relates to my party’s policy of funding free tuition for our students.

"I think that’s a good policy, it’s a policy I will stand by, but it does create challenges for our universities, I recognise that.”

Ms Gilruth added that universities were “experts” in working independently of government to raise finance, and that she has a “lot of faith” in the sector’s ability to respond to the challenges.

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She continued to emphasise the impact of immigration changes, as Mr Kerr pressed her on what action the Government was taking.

Ms Gilruth said: "It’s not my responsibility as Cabinet secretary for education in Scotland to mop up the mess of a Government elsewhere around about its approach to international students and immigration.

"These decisions have been taken elsewhere and they are harming the sector in Scotland.

"If the member has any leverage with his colleagues in Westminster, then I would suggest that he makes these points to my opponent in Westminster vigorously.

"Because I recognise the challenge here, but I’m not going to walk away from this Government’s policy of supporting free tuition for our young people.”

On reform of Scotland’s education sector, Ms Gilruth confirmed there would be an imminent debate on proposals in the Hayward review, which recommended axing exams at S4 and introducing a new Scottish Diploma of Achievement. The debate would later be followed by her official response to the report.

Ms Gilruth added: "I think there are parts of it we will take forward. Parts of it I will need to consider.”



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