What happens to 'free tuition' if Chinese students stop funding Scotland's universities? – Brian Wilson

University leader has warned of the ‘massive geopolitical risk’ created by relying on the expansion of international student numbers to pay for higher education

Listening to this week’s dire prognostications about malign Chinese intent, a thought occurred. What if some Beijing bureaucrat was listening and responded, in Mandarin: “Sod this. If they dislike us that much, why are we propping up their higher education system?”

I will leave to others the grounds for parliamentary indignation about Chinese cyber activities. It is the purely practical relationship between their money and our seats of learning which must figure high on the risk register, particularly in Scotland.

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This derives from our chosen method of funding universities and the mantra of “free tuition”, even though it is no such thing. The price is increasingly paid in two forms. The first is via gross over-dependence on inflated international fees to fill the void. The second is through rationing of places for Scottish students.

Neither strikes me as a desirable means of underwriting a slogan which masquerades as progressive “universalism” but is really a regressive subsidy for the better off. Progressivism would concentrate limited resources on those who actually need support to help equalise opportunity.

The unwary might believe that the Scottish Government, in all its self-advertised munificence, makes a higher contribution to the university education of our young people than in the rest of the UK, as a consequence of “free tuition”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

‘Massive geopolitical risk’

Alastair Sim, who has just retired as director of Universities Scotland, recalled in a parting article in The Scotsman that the costs of under-graduate education used to be largely covered by what the Scottish Government paid universities. “In 2015 however, there was an unspoken change of policy in which a series of annual real-term cuts to funding began on the assumption that growth in international student numbers would cross-subsidise increasing government under-funding of teaching and research”. Now, “on a very conservative estimate, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that real-term resources to teach each Scottish student have been cut by 19 per cent since 2014-15... Scotland makes the lowest investment in Britain in teaching, at £7,870 per student compared to £10,220 in England”.

That is a statistic we do not hear trumpeted in the self-publicity. The Scottish Government has pursued a calculated policy of spending less on each Scottish under-graduate and bridging the gap by maximising revenue from overseas students – which largely means Chinese who form by far the largest cohort – paying through the nose.

Alastair Sim wrote: “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. Those risks have now crystallised. Scotland and the UK are seeing significant drops in international student enrolment due an untimely combination of factors."

I guess that “massive geopolitical risk” and its particular implications for Scottish universities ratcheted up a notch this week. Without any sense of irony, however, SNP MPs scrambled for places in the auction of indignation about the Tories not having acted quickly enough to counter the Chinese menace.

Irony by-pass

Stewart McDonald, who at least has a track record on the issue, wanted “more robust action and a proper sea change in government thinking”. Ian Blackford got so excited that he was told: “You are confusing shouting with robustness.” Chris Law wondered: “How can any of us here, or outside in society, trust this UK Government, when they are far too late, and do very little of what needs to be done?”

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The irony by-pass was complete. It is only in Scotland that a strategic decision has been taken by these gentlemen’s party colleagues to maximise the Chinese subsidy to our universities which, if withdrawn, would leave several of them in a state of immediate bankruptcy. “How can any of us here”, to paraphrase Mr Law, “trust this Scottish Government…?”

We must hope that the Chinese do not vent umbrage by sending their students to countries where, in terms of inter-governmental relations, they are more welcome. For the time being, we trust, they will calculate the benefits of sending them to the UK outweigh the value of a diplomatic gesture. University bursars are keeping their fingers crossed.

Savvier choices of career

However, that should not preclude the need for an intelligent political debate about how to fund higher education in Scotland, taking account of this massive “risk” factor. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to have that debate because of the absurd status attributed to this manifestation of “universalism” from which the less well-off derive absolutely nothing.

For many young Scots, the more attainable and useful sector is further education. It can serve as an access route to university and, equally important, as a provider of skills and training which every community and society depends upon, a lot more than on media studies graduates.

A savvy school leaver might calculate there is likely to be a lifetime of well-paid work as a welder, plumber or in other trades where demand for labour far outstrips supply. These are internationally marketable skills as well as essential to the domestic economy.

As usual, however, the FE sector is treated as the poor relation. According to Colleges Scotland, it faces an eight per cent real terms cut on top of eight per cent between 2021-23. Courses and jobs are disappearing. Students are turned away from useful courses that are over-subscribed.

Closing the opportunity chasm in education is a long haul. My longstanding belief is in a sustained crusade for early intervention on a serious scale among those otherwise doomed to inter-generational exclusion. It doesn’t generate headlines but might change outcomes over a couple of decades.

There is, I fear, as little prospect of that as of a fundamental review of post-school education priorities and how they should be met. Far easier to shout “free tuition” and rely on Beijing until the bubble bursts.



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