Universities Scotland chief warns of more course closures and job cuts without new funding model

Outgoing director Alastair Sim calls for ‘serious conversation’ on support for sector

The outgoing head of Universities Scotland has warned the sector will face more course closures and job losses unless action is taken to find a sustainable way to fund higher education.

Alastair Sim, who is stepping down as director after 15 years in post, said it was time for Scotland to have a “serious conversation” about the best way to support universities, or risk their “severe degradation”.

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Writing exclusively for The Scotsman today, Mr Sim called for a cross-party consensus, as well as an “openness to socially-fair alternatives based on ‘the ability to learn, not the ability to pay’".

Students from the University of Edinburgh. Picture: Lisa FergusonStudents from the University of Edinburgh. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Students from the University of Edinburgh. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Universities Scotland is the representative body of Scotland's 19 higher education institutions.

The future of free tuition for Scottish students has come under the microscope in recent months amid a squeeze on spending, a reduction in places for Scots, and growing concerns over the reliance of universities on fees from international students.

Even education secretary Jenny Gilruth has admitted the SNP’s long-standing free tuition policy creates “challenges” for universities, while Scottish Labour has signalled it is considering alternative models.

Meanwhile, the impact of existing pressures has already been seen at the likes of Aberdeen University, which provoked fury by proposing axing modern languages courses, and the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), which is carrying out a comprehensive review into the way it operates.

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland.Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland.
Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland.

In his article, Mr Sim said real-terms cuts over a number of years was “stacking up real problems” for the sector, and there was now an increasing recognition of a need for “mature consideration of how to address this”, moving beyond the polarising “fees versus no fees” discussion.

He claimed there was an “unspoken change” of Scottish Government policy in 2015, which resulted in a series of annual real-terms cuts to funding, on the assumption that growth in international student numbers would cross-subsidise “increasing government underfunding of teaching and research”.

Mr Sim said: “University leaders have repeatedly warned this funding situation was forcing universities into a massive geopolitical risk by expecting them to rely on continual expansion of international student numbers.

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"Those risks have now crystallised. Scotland, and the UK, are seeing significant drops in international student enrolment due to an untimely combination of factors.

“So, what happens next? Without sustainable funding, universities will have to make increasingly difficult decisions about course closures, job losses, and erosion of the student experience.

“Institutions will do everything possible to mitigate the effects on students, but we’re facing a fundamental contradiction between students bringing increased needs to university, especially post-pandemic, and universities having less resource to meet those needs.

"Every job lost at a university has a personal story behind it, and is a blow to the local economy."

Mr Sim concluded: “We know there are no easy answers, but it must be worth looking at global examples to build socially-equitable ways of sharing the costs of higher education between the state and other beneficiaries.”

Claire McPherson, a former Scottish Government official who led work on public service reform, most recently as deputy director for population and migration, will succeed Mr Sim as director of Universities Scotland from Monday.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is resolutely committed to free tuition – since tuition fees were abolished in 2007, the number of Scottish students going to university for the first time has increased by 31 per cent, we have record numbers of students from our most deprived communities and the levels of student debt in Scotland are almost three times lower than in England.

“Despite the incredibly challenging financial circumstances facing government, we are investing over £1.1 billion into Scotland’s university sector – including a £2400 per year increase to the support package available to students from the 2024/25 academic year.”



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