Exclusive:University chief calls for 'compromise' deal on future of free tuition in Scotland

Sir Paul Grice wants cross-party agreement on new funding model

One of Scotland’s most respected university leaders has called for a review of universal free tuition to find a “compromise” model that secures the future of the nation’s esteemed higher education institutions.

Sir Paul Grice, vice-chancellor at Queen Margaret University (QMU), said talks must begin “quite soon”, as he signalled his support for creating a cross-party commission to find a new way of funding higher education in Scotland. He argued any new model must be both “affordable” and “fair”, without putting up any barriers to students from lower incomes.

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Sir Paul is the vice-convener of umbrella body Universities Scotland, having previously served as clerk and chief executive of the Scottish Parliament from its inception in 1999 to taking the helm at QMU in 2019.

Sir Paul Grice, principal of Queen Margaret UniversitySir Paul Grice, principal of Queen Margaret University
Sir Paul Grice, principal of Queen Margaret University | Malcolm Cochrane

In an exclusive interview with The Scotsman, he also described the “utter determination” he sees among the nation’s university principals as they respond to an ongoing financial storm in the sector, finding a “steely look in their eyes”. Pressure has been mounting at Scottish universities following years of below-inflation Government grant rises to cover the cost of teaching Scottish students, followed by an actual cut of £28.5 million this year.

The squeeze has left the sector increasingly reliant on the fees of international students. However, their numbers have also dropped recently as a result of the tightening of visa rules for the families of foreign students by the UK government, as well as its rhetoric on immigration.

Universities Scotland has told MSPs a 20 per cent decline in enrolments to taught postgraduate courses by international students was costing the sector more than £100m this year, with the fall expected to hit 27 per cent next year, which equates to almost 92,000 fewer applications.

In a sign of the scale of the strain, The Scotsman revealed last month that Aberdeen University, the fifth oldest in Britain, faced “significant doubts” over its future before a rescue plan was implemented earlier this year.

Sir Paul said he believed Scotland’s universities would survive, but they might look different in the future, unless a new funding system could be agreed.

“I was talking to a bunch of school kids earlier, P7s,” he said, during an interview at the QMU campus in Musselburgh. “We don't do that for economic reasons. That is not a recruitment fair for us. We do that because that is about making those young people think university is normal as a place you should go to. 

“There are many, many examples of where we do things like that that don't have an economic benefit, but we think is part of our mission.

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"One of the sadnesses is that if we don't find a more sustainable model, you end up squeezing out anything that is not economic. If you have to do that to survive, you have to do that to survive.  But, along with the efficiencies and the gains, you lose something if you're not careful. That is what worries me.”

Sir Paul was clear it was time for all parties to come together to discuss a new model.

"Nothing is going to change, I think, in the next two or three years,” he said. “But in ten years time we must have found a more sustainable, politically acceptable way to fund our universities, if we want them to do all the things they want us to do - widening participation, promoting the economy, helping society, improve the health service, and be local anchors of employment,” he said.

"If we want all of that, we need to find a way between us, and I think we all have a responsibility to do that. It's going to take a number of years to get there, so I think we've got to start quite soon thinking about how we're going to do that.”

All the main political parties in Scotland support the continuation of free tuition for Scottish students, with the existing system being introduced after the SNP came to power in 2007.

Some senior Scottish Labour and Scottish Conservative figures have spoken of the need to find alternative models, however, including their finance spokespeople, Michael Marra and Liz Smith.

Asked whether free tuition should continue, Sir Paul said: "I think there's a danger of almost a false dichotomy - is it free or are there fees? The truth is most people coming to university have to pay something, postgraduates and all the others. 

"What I do feel very strongly about is we need to make sure we do not put barriers in the way of people coming here from low income. I was the first in my family who went to university. I came to college and then went on.

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"Would I have gone to university if I thought there would be a huge debt at the far side? It probably would have worried me. So I do think we need to be mindful of that, but we've also got to think about ... it's not really free, somebody has to pay for it.

“And the problem at the moment is that over the last decade, government has just not been able to meet its part of the deal. What you don't want to end up with is poor-quality education. So I think we need to find some compromise. It has to be affordable, it has to be fair. "I think we have to try to get all the political parties together and say, 'look what do you want from the education system?' And I absolutely believe we could find a way through it. There won't be one solution, there might be lots of things we need to do.”

Sir Paul was “optimistic” of change, saying most politicians privately “get it”. A recent paper by the Reform Scotland think-tank recommended the creation of a commission to examine the issue.   Sir Paul said he believed a commission might work, adding: "Yeah, that could be a way into it. The key there, again having been around government for most of my career, is who is on it, what is it for?

“The most effective commissions are those where all the stakeholders - and that's not just the political parties, it’s the students, the trade unions - if everyone accepts it is a good process, then it has got a decent chance when it produces its report that everyone will buy into it.

"I think that is an interesting idea. I think some form of commission could be a way to take this forward. But you need to convince the key stakeholders that it was worth doing, otherwise it is just going to be another report, and I don't think another report is going to fix it.”

In the meantime, Sir Paul said there was no despondency among the nation’s university principals as they work to balance the books.

"I'm privileged to know all the principals across Scotland, they are all working very, very hard to make sure their university can come through it,” he said.

“You will find they have all got some things in their favour and some things that are particular challenges, there are no exceptions to that. Some people are frustrated. A lot of them are scratching their heads, working hard. I meet them and what there is an utter determination.

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“They are wonderfully privileged jobs, to run a university. But rightly you feel a weight of responsibility to the whole of your community, your staff above all else and your students.

“I talk to my fellow principals, and they are all different characters, but I think that is one thing, there is not a single one of them that doesn't have a sort of steely look in their eye.”

Asked about the future of free tuition, Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Liam Kerr said: “The SNP’s unacceptable underfunding of Scottish higher education means that more than half of our universities are reportedly in dire financial straits. 

“The funding for students per year of study has fallen by 19 per cent in real terms since 2013/14, leaving Scottish universities increasingly reliant on international fees. SNP ministers must take urgent action to ensure that our cherished institutions receive the financial support they need.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said there was a resolute “commitment to free tuition”.  “The latest data shows since this policy was put in place, the number of Scottish students entering full-time first degree courses at university has increased by 31 per cent, with record numbers of students from our poorest communities as a result of the Scottish Government’s commitment to widening access to university,” the spokesperson said.

“UCAS data also highlights record numbers of young people aged 19 and under securing a university place in Scotland in the most recent cycle. Scotland’s student debt levels are also the lowest in the UK, almost three times lower than in England.

“Our universities play a pivotal role in Scotland’s economy and society – and despite facing the most challenging budget since devolution, the Scottish Government will invest over £1 billion on teaching and research, including an increase in funding for research and innovation.  This will ensure our universities continue to play a pivotal role in Scotland’s economic growth.”

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