The Scottish budget announcement rightly received a good deal of attention given the continued pressure on public spending and the significant new tax powers handed to Holyrood. However it was disappointingly muted when it came to the challenges affecting our Higher Education sector and how we should address the widening access gap. Simply to state that “We are currently enabling an independent review of student support to make sure the system is fair and effective” hardly conveys any sense of urgency or much serious thought. In fact the criteria for undergraduate student support next year doesn’t even have an inflationary increase.
It is no longer credible to believe that by repeating the mantra of protecting free university tuition for all eligible undergraduates everything is fine. For years those who work and study in the sector have known that the current financial arrangements are not sustainable – the funding gap for undergraduate courses continues to widen. In addition the disclosure in the summer from the Sutton Trust report that Scotland has the largest university access gap when compared to other UK countries, with children from our poorest areas four times less likely to go to university than those from wealthy backgrounds, should shame us and be a catalyst for hard thinking.
Universities are increasingly shoring up their income streams by growing the intake of international students. This is a topic which probably not surprisingly is almost entirely through the prism of current immigration policy. Regretfully the recent ill advised comments by the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd suggesting she aims to restrict the number of universities who could be able to seek visas for foreign students puts in jeopardy the fiscal stability of those very universities that are the most likely to be accessed by those from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds.
However there has been little serious debate of the long term consequences of such a policy of increasing internationalisation for our indigenous students. English speaking universities have become magnets for those seeking a truly international study experience and Scotland has been no exception in successfully attracting more and more students from all parts of the world. As well as the fiscal advantages for the institutions and the wider communities in which they are based, our academic life particularly in terms of research has undoubtedly benefited from this surge of highly gifted and enthusiastic scholars. But the exchange is almost entirely in one direction – there are very few Scottish students who choose to spend their entire undergraduate years at a non-English speaking university and that position is unlikely to be reversed. The number of non- UK EU students has doubled in less than 10 years to currently over 24000 (including post-graduates) and even allowing for the uncertainties of Brexit the continued ability of EU undergraduate students to access the same funding package as domestic based students has a clear impact on the number of funded places available to Scottish students – an 11% drop in applications over the last five years for medicine from those living in Scotland is just one example and with a standstill budget the options available to tackle the access gap are becoming more constrained. If the Scottish Government is not prepared to increase the budget when will it articulate what it considers to be the optimum balance on key courses for those students who receive state support?
Excuses for the failure to close the access gap are given by constant comparison with the position in England – indeed the system in England is also unsustainable but for different reasons. In similarly evasive tones to his Scottish counterpart, the Chancellor in his autumn statement last month downplayed the continued failure to sell the student loan book which was to be the key component to finance the lifting of the cap on student numbers south of the border. But in England the crisis is likely to become much more noticeable in 2017 as the impact of withdrawing grant support in its entirety starts to register on government statistics – nursing student applications have already dropped by a fifth at a time when the NHS is facing acute staff shortages. However justified the criticism, constant sniping at others is not a recipe for good and sustainable policy decisions in your own home arena.
Instead of comparisons with a failing model in England, the Scottish Government would be better advised to look at Wales where they have found the courage to face up to some difficult choices. The recently published Diamond Review takes as basic assumption that policy makers need to look at the total costs of study for aspiring students rather than fixate on separate silos of fees, bursaries, grants and loans and it recognises that any funding package must cover the needs of an increasingly diverse student base – with more mature and part time students. The recommendations which create a more generous grant system particularly for those from lower income backgrounds are in direct response to consistent representations from students that it is maintenance assistance that gives them the flexibility to manage their finances and, in some cases, to overcome the real financial challenges associated with a period of higher education study.
The appointment this month of Professor Peter Scott as Scotland’s new Fair Access Commissioner is good news but it is anticipated that the new office will not be in place until the summer of 2017. And it’s also worth noting that the Diamond Review process which is still to conclude was started in early 2014 so the Scottish Government will need to make progress fast in the months to follow if it is serious about taking action during its current term of office. For Scottish students and our universities delaying change any longer and clinging to mantras previously set in stone will simply make the position worse.
Ann McKechin is a former Labour MP and was a Minister in the Scotland Office prior to the 2010 election. She is currently a member of the Court of the University of the West of Scotland and the executive committee of the Scottish Fabians but the views expressed here are entirely personal.