Scotland under pressure on choices for the future of higher education
The rise in English tuition fees has opened up a funding gap between English and Scottish higher education institutions some put as high as £200 million. But John Tibbitt argues that tuition fees' likely domination of the coming Scottish elections is a distraction. Other ideas for strengthening the contribution of HE to the development of the Scottish economy and civic society need attention too.
Scotland’s 20 Higher Education Institutions are funded for the most part through public funds disbursed by the Scottish Funding Council and constitute one of the major funding lines of the devolved Scottish Government. The SFC also funds Further Education Colleges which contribute on some estimates, up to 20 per cent of HE provision north of the Border. It is only the Research Funding Councils which have a UK remit in their distribution of research funds. The quality of Scottish Universities is recognised in international rankings.
Policies on further and higher education have been one area where Scotland and England have already diverged since devolution: Scottish domiciled students do not pay up-front tuition fees to attend Scottish universities, and since 2007, have no longer been required to pay a graduate endowment after graduation. This is a reflection of a long-held tradition in Scotland, and one that has been endorsed by the current SNP Government, that education should be free to those who can benefit from it. There are other differences. Most honours courses in Scotland are 4 year degrees, and are intended to articulate with the Highers examinations taken in secondary school. Further education is also recognised as an important access route to HE, with improving articulation between Higher National Certificates and Diploma courses and entry to degree courses at University.
Following the introduction of tuition fees in England, Scottish Universities have become anxious that any funding gap between English and Scottish institutions would be a threat to the world-class status of the sector in Scotland. Until now, the Scottish Government has been able to maintain public funding at a level which has minimised this gap, but the huge rise in fees proposed in England has now reopened this concern. An official estimate of the size of the funding gap has now been made by an expert group of economists from government and universities, which places this at somewhere between £155m and £202m, depending on what assumptions are made about the final level of fees charges by English Universities. How to close this gap is now a key issue for Scottish political parties in the run up to the Scottish election.
The current Scottish Government has also published a Green Paper on the Future of Higher Education in Scotland which explores a whole range of options for funding and for many other issues about the role, scale, shape and delivery of HE in Scotland. This has been discussed in a series of public meetings, and submissions have been invited from any interested parties. The closing date for receipt of views and comments was last Friday 25th February. The plan is that these views will be scrutinised by an expert panel, and the outcome made available to the political parties who will use it, among other things, to develop their policy proposals to put before the electorate in the coming election early in May. The incoming Scottish Government after the election will then need to move fast to legislate for any changes and implement them by 2012-13, in order to avoid placing Scottish HE at a further disadvantage with those south of the Border.
The fault lines in the debate are already becoming clear. The Universities, through Universities Scotland are pressing for the introduction of tuition fees, estimated to be of the order of £3000pa to close the funding gap with England. Many other stakeholders are resisting this move, arguing that it is contrary to Scottish principles, and that it will restrict access. The current nationalist government disputes the scale of the gap, claiming that if English domiciled students pay a fee similar to that they would have paid if they had gone to an English university in order to avoid Scottish Universities being ‘swamped’ with applicants from the south seeking to avoid high fees, then the gap is much narrower and ‘within the scope of political choices’ to close.
There can be little doubt that the fees issue will dominate this debate. It will be a pity if it pushes a whole raft of other ideas which are emerging for strengthening the contribution of HE to the development of the Scottish economy and civic society to one side. There are strong arguments being made about steps which will further improve access, about steps to improve flexibility in provision to facilitate continuing education and make a reality of lifelong learning, and about steps to improve universities’ engagement with the business, social and cultural life of the regions in which they are located. The consultation has pointed to other funding models including using contributions from a wide range of public programmes which benefit from HE provision. None of this is seen as incompatible with the international, research intensive, status of many Scottish HEIs.
Unfortunately many of these ideas will take time to work through and implement, and time is short.