Universities funding war flares again

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UNIVERSITY rectors have joined forces for the first time to launch an attack on the Scottish Government, accusing ministers of failing to financially support the higher education sector.

The former Green MSP Mark Ballard, the rector of Edinburgh University, led the broadside, insisting the government's Joint Future Thinking Taskforce, set up to tackle higher education funding, was too focused on the present rather than the future.

He said: "While it has been talking at great length about how existing funding is divided, it has not actually dealt with the most pressing issue, which is increasing the size of funding for higher education in Scotland.

"While English and Welsh institutions have gone down the road of tuition fees, we in Scotland have chosen wisely not to do that. But the Scottish Government so far has failed to come up with proper funding to match the revenue that is being accrued by English and Welsh institutions from tuition fees."

He said more funding was crucial for Scottish universities to remain public institutions for the good of Scotland.

"There needs to be general public funding of a greater proportion and to a greater degree than came out of the last Scottish Government budget," he said.

The Joint Future Thinking Taskforce was set up after a low settlement for universities in the last Scottish Government budget. An interim report was published in June and consultation on it is due to finish in a week.

The attack represents the first time Scotland's rectors have spoken out as one on an issue since the first rector was invested at St Andrews University in the 15th century.

Simon Pepper, the rector at St Andrews, welcomed the expansion of postgraduate places and plans to match privately raised funds with government cash. However, he added:

"Most students leave university with debts of 13,500, which mitigates against the agenda of inclusiveness."

Charles Kennedy, the former Liberal Democrat leader and Glasgow University rector, said the group would lobby both Holyrood and Westminster.

He said: "We can't see the position in Scotland as in complete isolation to what is happening south of the Border.

"We know that the cap on tuition fees is being lifted there, and inevitably that is going to have knock-on effect on the Scottish dimension."

A spokesman for Universities Scotland, which represents principals, said: "Nobody involved in universities is unaware of the very real financial pressures we are under. There cannot be anyone left who does not think investment is necessary."

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said it was "always happy to listen to the views of students and student representatives".

BACKGROUND

RECTOR is a unique position in Scotland's five "ancient" universities: St Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee.

The first rector was Lawrence Lindores, at St Andrews, in the 1400s. He was the papal chief inquisitor for Scotland and would have been responsible for burning "heretics" at the stake.

Latterly, the holder of the post has been elected by the student body or, in Edinburgh's case, by the staff, and the incumbent serves on the university court.