The higher and further education sectors are utterly crucial to Scotland’s economic future; every £1 of competitively won university research funding returns £8 of economic growth. The higher education sector’s contribution to national economic growth is an estimated £15.3 billion a year. But it is the students who come through our institutions who are our greatest hope for the future – they will be the leaders and change-makers to whom we turn to solve the great coming challenges of the age.
That is why, as the elected leader of Universities Scotland, I am profoundly disappointed, and shocked, that the Scottish Government has chosen to cut £20 million from the funding that MSPs voted to allocate to universities for 2023/24. This week we saw the government go into a confused reverse, months after ministers had trumpeted this investment as evidence of their commitment to colleges and universities. Those boasts look hollow now.
I understand that when budgets are tight, governments have to make difficult choices, but they are choices and this one tells us a great deal about the new administration’s priorities. The decision is short-sighted, divisive, and brings into question the true value the Scottish Government places on higher education. The choice to disinvest from higher education is a blow to our students, our staff, and our contribution to building a better Scotland, and a better world.
Scotland has become an outlier when it comes to public investment in higher education. Between 2008 and 2020, the European University Association tracked levels of government spending on higher education in its Public Funding Observatory. The trend across these small economies was consistent: an increase in their public spending on universities. In Norway, it increased by 36 per cent, 34 per cent in Austria and Iceland, and 31 per cent in Switzerland. In stark contrast, Scotland saw a decrease of 17 per cent.
It is the responsibility of every leader in politics, and in education, to ensure that we give our young people the start in life that they need and deserve. At its most basic, every generation should ensure that the generations that come after them have the opportunities that they enjoyed. Yet, with a cut of a third in universities’ teaching budgets over the past seven years, the Scottish Government risks depriving our young people of the chance to make the most of their terrific potential.
The government’s failure to invest in our students will have consequences for us all. These cuts, coming long after the Scottish Parliament had approved the budget, will be devastating for our staff, students and the communities they serve. As a university leader who is still active in teaching, I am seeing first-hand the increased needs that students are bringing to university after the pandemic. We are dealing with a heavy legacy of lost learning, combined with well-being challenges that have endured long after the pandemic lockdowns.
Typically, we are finding that students are up to two years behind where we would expect them to be in social confidence, with complex additional welfare needs. We are stepping up to meet these additional pastoral and learning needs, but our ability to give every student the intensive support they deserve is compromised by Scottish Government disinvestment.
Universities are fundamentally places of discovery and dissemination of new knowledge. This is important in its own right, and also for giving us the tools to address the pressing social, environmental and cultural challenges that the world faces. And we surely saw the crucial value of universities’ research, fundamental and applied, during the Covid pandemic.
Universities are also a vital component of Scotland’s economic proposition. That isn't something abstract: it is the high-quality jobs that universities sustain throughout our cities and regions, and our ability to attract clusters of innovative companies to Scotland, drawn here by our outstanding graduates and our world-leading research.
My university of St Andrews, together with our partners at Abertay and Dundee, is, for instance, at the heart of the Tay Cities Region Deal. This is bringing jobs and environmental transformation to an area of the country where universities are a leading force in turning around decades of economic decline. Again, real-terms cuts in Scottish Government research funding of 36 per cent since 2014/15 compromise what we can do in this space.
I am proud to lead a deeply international institution. I believe that benefits all our students. However, I am concerned that the Scottish Government has made an essentially cynical choice to under-fund core teaching and research in the expectation that we can continually increase international fee income. Yes, we should be international, but for the right reasons, not because government has chosen to stake universities’ future on the high geopolitical risk of increased growth in international student numbers.
Scotland’s principals, as custodians of our universities, have inherited a multi-generational tradition of excellence and inclusion. It would be a tragedy for the nation if our government’s unenlightened choice to disinvest from higher education means that we have to pass on a damaged legacy to our successors.
As a matter of urgency, to restore national and international confidence in its stewardship of our higher and further education sectors, the Scottish Government must set out clearly and precisely how it will repay the significant debt it now owes to our young people.
Professor Dame Sally Mapstone is the principal of the University of St Andrews and convener of Universities Scotland