Coronavirus crisis: UK Government must commit to Scottish university bailout within days – Richard Lochhead

A lack of clarity over funding by the UK Government may soon result in serious cuts by Scotland’s universities with a huge ripple effect on the wider economy, writes Science minister Richard Lochhead.

Edinburgh University students at a graduation ceremony in the McEwan Hall in the days before Covid (Picture: David Cheskin/PA)
Edinburgh University students at a graduation ceremony in the McEwan Hall in the days before Covid (Picture: David Cheskin/PA)

This is a crunch time for Scotland’s 19 universities, as their governing courts begin to gather to hammer out budgets and operational plans for the coming academic year and beyond.

Session 2020-21 is likely to be like no other, given the events of the past three months and the expected end of the Brexit transition period in December.

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Not only will there be health considerations and arrangements to be put in place to secure the safety of thousands of staff and students, but bottom lines already feeling the bruising effects of the double whammy of a global pandemic and the potential loss of access to vital EU funding programmes are likely to be stretched like never before.

Scotland’s university sector is a precious pillar of the country’s economy and society.

This 250,000-strong community plays a huge part in our life, reported by Universities Scotland to generate around £7 billion in annual gross value added to the nation.

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Scottish universities play host to around 58,000 international students, the highest percentage (23%) of international students of any of the four UK nations, making Scottish campuses one of the most diverse and culturally rich communities in the country.

And why do so many come here? Because Scotland’s universities are world class, not only in what they teach, but in terms of the ground-breaking research being done right now and over the past centuries, across a raft of key disciplines, from medicine to engineering, economics to science, the environment, the arts, business and industry.

Last month, in these pages, I wrote that what’s actually been happening across our research community in the past 12 weeks may well go down as our universities’ finest hour – their rising brilliantly to the unprecedented scientific and practical challenges presented by coronavirus (COVID-19).

As well as developing mitigating strategies to minimise any negative impacts on their own activities – at what was breakneck speed - our institutions and their researchers demonstrated their flexibility in being able to respond positively to the global challenge of identifying vaccines and other issues related to the pandemic, including the best ways of prevention and of caring for those afflicted by it.

That resounding effort underlined to the world, just how Scotland remains a universally recognised centre for research work taking place on public health and other societal issues, globally.

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Scottish Government core funding for our universities’ research and innovation was worth £290 million in 2020-21. This enabled them to secure more than £280 million in UK Research Council spending on competitive university grants, studentships and fellowships.

Latest Scottish Funding Council figures predict, however, the impact of COVID-19 in the current academic year alone will be around £72 million in lost university income, and up to £650 million in the worst-case scenario in 2020-21.

A large part of that is blamed on an expected fall in the numbers of arriving international students, to which Scotland is particularly vulnerable, given we have the highest percentage, that 23%.

The SFC’s blunt headline prediction is all universities in Scotland will go into deficit as a result of COVID-19.

And all of this is at a time when Audit Scotland has already suggested the financial impact on them of leaving the EU could be around £211 million.

The Scottish Government stepped in early on, to provide university research in Scotland with a boost of £75 million last month.

This has proved an immediate cash lifeline for them to protect our gold-plated research base, and to help our institutions concentrate fully on securing the immediate future of the high-priority research needed to fight the outbreak and to support society and the economy.

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However, that cash injection needs complemented by a substantial contribution from the UK Treasury, to ensure appropriate financial support is made available to Scottish universities in the months ahead – which are shaping up to be arguably one of the most fragile periods in the sector’s history.

Since the COVID-19 crisis began, I have been sitting on a UK taskforce – co-chaired by UK Science Minister Amanda Solloway and the UK universities Minister Michelle Donelan - to consider some of the financial and logistical challenges facing university research as a result of the pandemic, such as an expected loss in international tuition fee income, the potential loss of early career and experienced research talent, a reduction in business and charity funding, and delays in crucial research projects.

I wrote over the weekend to Ms Solloway, insisting the UK Government must urgently deliver a comprehensive package of funding for UK research to counter those twin threats of COVID and Brexit, taking into account the particular interests of Scotland’s universities.

It’s been widely reported how the UK has aspirations of being considered a science superpower - but the very institutions that can deliver on that are now facing their biggest ever financial crisis.

Of course, doubt also remains over what detailed arrangements are going to be place following the end of the Brexit transition period, such as whether the UK will associate to the hugely prestigious Horizon Europe research and innovation programme. The current Horizon 2020 programme has provided roughly €85 million each year to Scottish higher education institutions since 2014.

This continued lack of clarity over funding by the UK Government could very soon result in the direct loss of research talent, a reduction in our research capacity and the halting or cancelation of major capital projects, with an obvious huge ripple effect on the wider economy and our future global research reputation and competitiveness.

We need that solid UK financial commitment, right now, within days, to help secure Scotland’s economic recovery and to protect the jobs and training needed to support, what quite bluntly is one of the country’s most valuable assets – the nation’s global reputation for science and research excellence.

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Richard Lochhead is Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science

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