Universities have reached a “pivot point” at which failure to address years of eroded funding will risk a disastrous fall in competitiveness, according to the organisation that represents Scottish higher education (HE) bodies.
Alastair Sim, Director of Universities Scotland (US), warned strong global league table showings and longstanding “rhetoric” about institutions “punching above their weight” were masking deeply troubling strains that, if not tackled, will likely damage his sector’s ability to drive Covid recovery and provide a quality learning experience to students. He also said financial support for research activity north of the Border was lagging behind that in England.
The remarks come as Finance Secretary Kate Forbes prepares the 2022-23 budget and medium term financial strategy. Amid growing demand for university places and fierce international competition, US leaders have produced a submission that calls for increased annual investment of £241.7 million across a range of areas, including core undergraduate education, graduate apprenticeships, research, and capital maintenance.
It also says ministers should support access efforts by sustaining in future years the additional funded places for Scottish-domiciled students that were provided during the pandemic.
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Institutions here are currently enjoying something of a purple patch in national and global league tables. The 2022 QS ranking saw Edinburgh University secure 16th spot – ahead of prestigious rivals such as Princeton and Columbia – while Glasgow, St Andrews, Aberdeen, Heriot-Watt and Stirling all moved up the list. The success continued last month, when The Times named St Andrews the UK’s top HE institution.
But Mr Sim suggested there was a danger that league table results could lead to complacency about threats to the underlying position and strength of Scottish universities.
“We are used in Scotland to the rhetoric of universities punching above their weight,” he told The Herald. “And I think, to be honest, some of that headline stuff actually masks what’s happening beneath that level. You just need to be delving down a little bit below that to see there’s strain.”
The US submission highlights a steady erosion in funding per full-time undergraduate student, which has fallen by 13 per cent since 2014/15. US experts also note the research excellence grant has decreased 13% in real terms over the same period. Meanwhile, Scotland’s share of competitively won, UK-level research funds dropped from more than 15% in 2013/14 to below 13% in 2019/20.
Mr Sim warned such declines, combined with the pressure of responding to rising applicant demand and the complex needs of a diverse, pandemic-hit student population, would create serious risks, particularly as institutions bid to sustain research strength.
“Basically, in Scotland, you’ve seen this erosion of that basic funding through the research excellence grant, whereas, in England, the government has invested in their equivalent,” he said. “And that has improved their competitive position of basically having the staff and facilities that then let them put together these really competitive research and innovation bids.
“It’s really fundamental for our success. It’s not just about giving academics the power to do the things that they’re brilliant at doing. It’s about actually creating really high quality jobs. It’s about these clusters of economic growth and inward investment that you see around universities.”
Mr Sim also warned there were major concerns for the future quality of teaching if ministers do not step up with more funding. “We will always do our best for students,” he added. “But you do find, frankly, there will be problems of quality.
“What students will find is that they’re being taught in larger groups. Academics are probably having to struggle to give feedback and pastoral support to larger numbers of students. It’ll be more difficult to get an appointment to see your supervisor and just get the in-depth discussions you need. It becomes more difficult and slower to get appointments for pastoral support or career support. Everyone will always do the best they can to do these things within the resources available but it just gets more and more difficult… if you don’t have the money to do it.”
He added: “I think we are at a pivot point, particularly with a three-year budget, potentially. These are three years in which you can either make the investments that we’re calling for… Or, frankly, if we get put into a cycle of continued, real-terms erosion of how we’re supported then, inevitably, that will be to the detriment of how we contribute to Scotland, what we can contribute, our competitive position in relation to other university sectors where nations are really ambitious for what they can contribute to society.
“The Scottish Government stepped up with a bit over £225m worth of extra support through the [Covid] emergency so a lot of what we’re saying is, look, in the students’ interests and in the interests of having a contributor to Scotland, don’t waste that.”
A Government spokeswoman said: “Our universities have an essential role to play in helping drive Scotland’s economic recovery. We look forward to discussing with Universities Scotland how we can continue to support the success of our world-leading institutions in the lead up to the Scottish Budget.
“Since the start of the pandemic universities have received £150 million of additional Scottish Government support directly related to coronavirus. We continue to work with universities to mitigate the financial challenges they have faced by Covid-19 and to ensure they remain at the forefront of global education and research as we emerge from this crisis.”