14 Oct 2016
In speeches at a MillionPlus and NUS Scotland fringe event at the Scottish National Party Conference in Glasgow today (14 October), Professor Clive Mulholland, Principal and Vice-Chancellor at the University of the Highlands and Islands, and Shirley Atkinson, Vice-Chancellor at Sunderland University, urged the First Minister and SNP colleagues to work with, and for, Modern Universities in addressing the challenges of social mobility and Brexit.
Professor Mulholland and Ms Atkinson shared the platform with Shirley-Anne Somerville MSP, Further and Higher Education Minister; Carol Monaghan MP, Education Group Leader in Westminster; Vonnie Sandlan, President of NUS Scotland; and Malia Bouattia, President of NUS.
Professor Mulholland will say:
“Social Mobility has long been part of modern universities DNA and their experience needs to inform the solutions on access going forward to promote opportunities and new life-chances without restriction by borders.
“I was encouraged to hear the First Minister talk about defending Scotland’s interests [in the event of Brexit] but universities need assurances now on EU students. Recruitment for 2017-18 is about to commence. Scottish Ministers must follow the lead of the UK government’s announcement and commit to funding EU students who choose to study in Scottish universities next year. That said, I would like to see the Scottish government do better than the UK government and go further, guaranteeing EU students will be treated the same as Scottish students up to and including 2020.”
Ms Atkinson will say:
“The Westminster government is using the Higher Education and Research Bill to further promote a market in England, and the idea that students are consumers. In addition, Ministers are planning to lower the criteria for university title – all things which the UK government says will enhance student choice.
“We are not so sure and we hope that the SNP will continue to scrutinise this Bill, and the associated Teaching Excellence Framework, which will inevitably impact on Scotland.”
Turning to Brexit, she said:
“[This week], MillionPlus published Trade in HE services and research - negotiating Brexit, a policy briefing analysing the potential impact on trade in education due to Brexit, which includes a number of recommendations – some focused specifically on the Scottish Government.
“We are also proposing that EU students should not be classed as international students post Brexit but that they should be given temporary residency status while studying.
“Given the SNP’s interest in access we hope that you will discuss these recommendations with us and that you can take them forward in your work.”
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Universities, colleges and students: promoting access and life chances in Holyrood and Westminster
Friday 14 October, 12:30pm-1:30pm
Inspiration 1, the Village Hotel
Full text of speech by Shirley Atkinson:
Can I start by thanking both Shirley-Anne and Carol on behalf of MillionPlus for being with us today, representing the work that the SNP is doing in Holyrood and Westminster.
Can I also pay tribute to our colleagues at the NUS and of course, NUS Scotland. MillionPlus has held joint fringes with the NUS for many years, as we know that student engagement is crucial to any high quality university and college system, so I am particularly pleased to be on this platform today.
Now, as you will have gathered, I am a Vice-Chancellor in England, and since devolution, our higher education sectors have taken somewhat different paths.
However, with the new Home Secretaries ill-advised rhetoric around reducing international student numbers, the cross-border implications of the Higher Education and Research Bill in the Westminster Parliament, and the seismic impact of Brexit, it has never been as important to work together to make sure we consider the far reaching impacts these could have on opportunities and life chances.
Now, irrespective of geography, promoting access and enhancing life chances are key aims of all modern universities. My University, Sunderland, and Clive’s in the Highlands and Islands, are leaders in promoting access to higher education in our regions, but we also promote international partnerships and student exchange.
For my part, I have recently been a member of a taskforce set up by the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, on how best to improve social mobility and the diversity of the sector in England.
But let me be clear: this is not about getting a few more young people from low income or ethnic minority backgrounds into what politicians are too apt to call ‘top institutions’.
Governments of all parties need to have a much bolder and more wide-ranging vision and one which values and recognises the leadership already shown by modern universities in delivering new opportunities to people of all ages and backgrounds.
It’s also worth pointing out that in England the leaders of modern universities led the way in demanding that the then government funded additional student numbers in universities to improve access. The stark reality is that you cannot widen participation while keeping numbers static or reducing funding.
Now as Carol knows, the Westminster government is using the Higher Education and Research Bill to further promote a market in England, and the idea that students are consumers. In addition, Ministers are planning to lower the criteria for university title – all things which the UK government says will enhance social mobility.
Well in MillionPlus we’re not so sure. We have questioned this direction of travel and have been working to ensure that points of principle and key amendments to the Bill are raised and debated – and we hope that the SNP will continue to scrutinise this Bill, and the associated Teaching Excellence Framework, which will inevitably impact on Scotland.
But our mission to promote opportunities and new life-chances should not be restricted by borders, so let me briefly mention Brexit.
On Tuesday, MillionPlus published a policy briefing analysing the potential impact on trade in education due to Brexit, which includes a number of recommendations – some focused specifically on the Scottish Government.
We are also proposing that EU students should not be classed as international students post Brexit but that they should be given temporary residency status while studying.
Given the SNP’s interest in access we hope that you will discuss these recommendations with us and that you can take them forward in your work.
Universities must always work with local communities, making real contributions to their local, regional and national communities, and offering life-changing opportunities for everyone.
We need this to continue, North and South of the border, so I urge the SNP to continue working with us, and to stand up for our diverse and innovative sector during the challenging time ahead.
Full text of speech by Professor Clive Mulholland:
Like Shirley, I’d like to thank Carol and Shirley-Anne, as well as Vonnie and Malia. It’s a real pleasure to join you today.
As Shirley has said, the issues currently being debated in Westminster will profoundly affect our universities and Carol, we’re grateful for the work you’re doing on the Scrutiny Committee for the Higher Education and Research Bill. However, for now I will focus on Scotland in particular.
I welcomed the First Minister’s ambition to see every child, irrespective of background, having an equal chance to enter university. At modern universities, this ambition has long been part of our DNA. Our students are from all backgrounds and all ages, and they bust the myth that your one chance to start studying for a degree is when you’re a teenager. This is why I believe the experience of modern universities need to inform the solutions on access going forward.
The Scottish government’s commitment not to introduce tuition fees may mean that we do not face quite the same issues of consumerism and marketisation as Shirley and her colleagues in England. But we cannot escape the profound challenges we face in Scotland in going even further along the road of improving access, especially for those people who are already in the workforce or have caring and family responsibilities.
The Audit Scotland report this summer spelled out how far we have come but it also highlighted the hurdles that we face. Costs are increasing. It’s why there must be more central funding. Without it, there will be a reduction in the unit of resource for students.
It is also true that any goal to improve participation must be matched by a commitment to improve the number of funded students - and I emphasise ‘funded’.
This is not an excuse to rest on our laurels – far from it as far as modern universities are concerned - but it’s a political reality that cannot be ignored.
Of course, this has all been made more challenging by the uncertainty of Brexit. As such we need the Scottish government to be working with us and for us.
I was encouraged to hear the First Minister talk about defending Scotland’s interests, but universities need assurances now on EU students. Recruitment for 2017-18 is about to commence. Scottish Ministers must follow the lead of the UK government’s announcement earlier this week and commit to funding EU students who choose to study in Scottish universities next year. That said, I would like to see the Scottish government do better than the UK government and go further, guaranteeing EU students will be treated the same as Scottish students up to and including 2020. If we don’t do this, we will simply give away these students to our competitors whilst limiting opportunities for Scottish students to study in Europe.
And don’t let’s forget the engagement of universities in the delivery of projects supported by European Structural Funds or co-operation programmes. In the case of my university, European Union Structural Funds have been fundamental to our development, and they have had a real impact on the regional economy of the Highlands and Islands. There has also been significant investment in teaching and research facilities and the information and communications technology which underpins this.
UHI alone stands to lose £19m from 2018 – funding designed to support additional student places and curriculum development. With EU research funding projects like Horizon 2020 also under threat, further substantial reductions in funding to universities are likely and have the potential to divert precious resources away from promoting access across Scotland.
But let me end by referring to one other major issue, namely the UK Home Secretary’s proposal to apply a spurious quality test to universities and international students.
International students benefit us socially, culturally and economically and every – that’s right - every university in the UK is quality assured so there is no doubt about quality.
We need a coordinated response to expose this ill-judged proposal for what it is – a back door way of using international students to reduce migration numbers.
So the challenges are very real, and they require us all to work together. This means we need a government in Holyrood listening to the sector and to students, respecting our institutions but also respecting our autonomy.
Modern universities lie at the heart of our communities but have a global reach. We contribute significantly to local and national economies. We are innovative in our teaching with world-leading and applied research and we are at the forefront of promoting access and life changes across Scotland and beyond.
This is why I hope that we can build a future based on collaboration and mutual respect, not just to improve access, vital though that is, but also to deliver investment in our institutions and our students so that together, we can work to deliver the future prosperity of Scotland that is vital to our graduates and their families.
Notes to editors