Scottish universities lose £400m in ‘stealth’ funding squeeze

Universities have lost out on more £400 million of funding as the impact of “stealth cuts” in recent years take their toll, new analysis has indicated.

And cash for institutions is down again in next year’s Scottish budget which will be agreed by Holyrood this week, marking a “real terms” funding cut of 11 per cent. The news comes amid growing concerns that many “straight As” Scottish pupils are being rejected by universities as affordability issues mean that free places for home youngsters are capped.

Opponents say it undermines First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that education is her top priority.

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But the claims have been dismissed by the Scottish Government. Ministers say they provide more than £1 billion to ensure Scots universities are “attractive and competitive” globally.

Ministers say they provide more than £1 billion to ensure Scots universities are attractive and competitive globally

In 2018-19 prices, university funding fell from £1.135bn in 2014-15 to £1.129bn the following year. It has continued to fall in the years since. The provisional budget for next year indicates it will reach £1.007bn. This has a resulted in a cumulative loss of £417 million over five years.

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said: “The way ­university budgets have been cut over the last few years has been gradual, a little every year, rather than all in one go.

“This doesn’t make the cuts any easier for universities to manage but it does make it easier to get them through each budget as they are less visible to those outside of the sector and each cut, on its own, is harder to make a song and dance about.

“We want to see the downward trend in university funding stop, and to have confidence that the Scottish Government is planning for a gradual return to sustainable funding levels.

“There’s also Barnettable funding from the UK government’s extra investment in research and innovation in England that the Scottish Government could pass on to universities here with no impact on the budget deals already done.”

The draft budget for 2019-20 is set to go through at Stage 3 at Holyrood this week after a deal was struck between the SNP and the Greens.

It emerged last year that dozens of letters from angry parents had been sent to Ms Sturgeon and John Swinney after Scots school leavers with as many as eight A passes in their Highers were rejected from the country’s top universities.

This is because university fees for home students are paid by the Scottish Government – but places are capped to keep it affordable. Instead, universities in Scotland must make up much of their funding via students from elsewhere in the UK, and foreign students who pay high fees in order to study in Scotland.

Students from other EU countries don’t pay any fees, in line with EU law and the Scottish Government, has pledged to continue with this after Brexit.

Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said: “Investing in education is investing in our people and our economy, it should be the top priority for any government, and Nicola Sturgeon promised it would be hers. That claim is utterly farcical when stacked up next to the numbers.

“Universities have faced more cuts under the SNP. That’s bad for students in Scotland and for the future of the Scottish economy – but rather than reverse those cuts, the SNP-Green budget proposes even more.

“Labour would invest in our people, communities and public services by making the richest pay their fair share, starting with a 50p top rate of tax.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Labour’s attack on university funding is puzzling given that they failed to demand a single extra penny for universities during their shambolic budget negotiations.

“We have invested over £1bn in our universities every year since 2012-13. This will continue for 2019-20, supporting our institutions to remain attractive, competitive and truly excellent in global terms.

“Unlike the Labour Party, we continue to protect the principle of free education – as well as widening access to university for people from the most deprived communities.”

It emerged last week that entry requirements for some of Scotland’s most prestigious universities, including Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow, will be lowered to increase the number of students from poorer backgrounds.