My statement to Parliament yesterday outlined a host of carefully implemented measures we have taken, and now expect to take, to help our 26 colleges and 19 universities not only to weather the effects of Covid-19, but to emerge from it even stronger.
But arguably more than anything, I hope I managed to emphasise just what a hugely influential and considerable community – of around 65,000 staff and half a million students – this is to Scotland, and how quite rightly it is being placed squarely at the very heart of the country’s economic and social recovery from the pandemic.
The recently published recommendations of the Government’s Advisory Group on Economic Recovery – being led by Benny Higgins – highlighted their clout with a rather apt description: they are ‘anchor organisations’, within all our communities.
As early as March, when the impact of Covid-19 first began to emerge, I set up a special leadership group, bringing together all senior figures from across post-16 education – from principals to union leaders and student representatives.
Government and institutions immediately worked together, as one, to swiftly and collectively decide how best we could react and respond to the crisis.
It became clear very quickly – becoming more pronounced as the weeks of lockdown continued – that despite this rapid response, Covid-19 was going to have a massive impact on them all, placing an unprecedented social and financial burden on many, because of a loss of inevitable income.
We have now published a summary of what immediate support we have given those institutions, and how we are looking towards what may be needed in future.
This Further and Higher Education Sustainability Plan details the additional resources we have committed: £75m to protect world-leading research, £10m for estates development, an additional £5m across FE and HE student support, and early access to £11.4m of HE Hardship Funds.
Also importantly, our universities will have access to grants and substantial, long-term low-interest loans that the UK Government announced on 27 June, related to research.
I have asked the Scottish Funding Council to lead a review of both provision and financial sustainability, to ensure our colleges and universities are able to play that vital role in economic and social recovery.
Institutional health is one aspect of the plan. Support for students is another. This work will shape an important part of the Government’s thinking on our future strategy for colleges, universities and research in Scotland.
It is also important to point out that none of our colleges or universities ever actually closed throughout the pandemic and essential research in support of the response to the pandemic carried on – but they did shift hugely, and remarkably quickly, some almost overnight, to new models of working. This is now paving the way for the re-starting of research from 29 June and a phased return to teaching from 22 July with a combination of remote learning and some limited on-campus learning.
So our students from Scotland, the rest of the UK and overseas can be confident of receiving the benefits of an excellent Scottish education, while of course, appropriate safety measures, including physical distancing will be in place.
We have already published guidance, developed with the sectors, which set out how our colleges, universities, and research can prepare for a safe, phased return to campus.
I talked also yesterday of how some of the consequences of EU exit are already starting to bite the sectors in Scotland, in particular our future participation in two EU programmes: student exchange programme Erasmus+ and the research funding programme Horizon Europe.
The Scottish Government has always been clear that its overwhelming priority is to remain full members in both, given that Scotland has historically gained enormously from the unparalleled historic educational, cultural and economic benefits they offer us, having secured proportionally more funding from both programmes than any other country in the UK.
Without any clear UK Government enthusiasm for continued participation in Erasmus, I am afraid it now looks likely that programme will be abandoned by the UK Government, and I will be continuing to push for stronger reassurances from the UK Government around the nature of the UK’s future participation in Horizon Europe.
I also announced that the Scottish Government has taken the very difficult decision to end free education for EU students starting a course from the academic year 2021-22 onwards, as a consequence of Brexit. Those who have already started their studies, or who start this autumn, will not be affected and will still get free tuition for the entirety of their course. But for those starting in 2021-22 onwards, the Scottish Government will no longer be able to provide tuition fee support to study a course of further or higher education in Scotland.
I can assure everyone, however, that the funding currently devoted to paying EU student fees will remain in the sector for the next two academic years, and as a result it is likely there will be an increase in the number of Scottish domiciled students getting a place at university – some silver lining there, at least. And of course, the Scottish Government remains committed to free higher education for those living in Scotland.
But let’s be very clear about these changes: these decisions have been made because we are being forced out of the EU against Scotland’s wishes. That is the blunt reality of Brexit, and a painful reminder that our country’s decisions are affected by UK policies that we do not support and did not vote for.
As Scotland responds to Covid-19, and to Brexit, I want to emphasise again that the continued health and success of our colleges and universities will be crucial to our future economic prosperity by providing our people with the life chances and skills we need to power our society.
They will continue to be given every help possible, to remain central to this country’s recovery, and to the Scotland that emerges from this most difficult of years.
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