Modern universities crucial to Scotland’s success

29 Jan 2021

This is a longer version of an editorial originally published in The Times Scotland on 27 January.

Scotland’s seven modern universities are a vital component of the country’s higher education landscape. With campuses all over Scotland and beyond we educate nearly 80,000 students in the UK while delivering courses to 20,000 more in countries around the world. Scotland’s modern universities have broken down barriers to progress, broadening access to a life-changing university education. 

Almost 60% of students from Scotland’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods are taught at a modern university and our universities contribute over £2bn to their regional economies, supporting over 30,000 jobs. Our research supports over 400 organisations in Scotland, and over half of Scotland’s knowledge transfer partnerships are at our universities, driving forward innovation that creates economic growth. Securing the future of our universities is of utmost importance to Scotland and to their students and communities.

Universities have been at the vanguard of tackling the covid-19 pandemic and supporting people across society; through pioneering research, by providing the health service with the wide array of health professionals, by supporting our local communities, and by working with business to ensure safe work environments. Many universities are providing testing facilities and are now supporting the mass roll out of the vaccine.

Much of the public service workforce we have come to rely on so heavily since last spring have been forged in a modern university. Nearly 30% of the students at our universities are studying courses linked to public services (nursing, allied health, social work, teacher education, medicine). A strong and inclusive national recovery requires well-developed public services to ensure the country is healthy and resilient. We believe the upcoming budget provides the opportunity for specific investment in public services education to be considered by the government and Scottish Funding Council.

Public funding of Scottish universities has been declining in real terms since 2013, and funding per student is now substantially lower than in other parts of the UK. The funding we receive for teaching, research and innovation does not cover the costs. That puts in jeopardy the huge strides forward in equipping people in every corner of the country with a graduate-level education and the vital transferrable skills required to succeed in a rapidly-changing workplace.

Britain’s exit from the EU, while potentially deleterious to universities, frees up money that could be used to boost the per student investment in Scottish higher education. This could be achieved without creating an additional burden on the taxpayer, nor requiring budget reductions elsewhere. Scottish Government funding allocated to support EU students should be retained by the Scottish Funding Council and used to significantly increase the unit of resource for teaching, and, over time, redress the funding decline.

A report by the Scottish government on the impacts of Covid-19 on fair access to higher education concluded that the greatest burden has fallen on those institutions with the highest proportions of students from disadvantaged areas.[2] That every citizen, regardless of background or income, has the opportunity to improve their life chances is the hallmark of a progressive society. It would be a tragedy – and a wholly preventable one - if the chances of those people with the least are denied the option of higher-level study because of this pandemic. Without sustainable funding arrangements for Scottish modern universities, put simply, that is what is at stake.

Although we have, understandably, focused on the harm done by Covid-19 we also see positives. Our society has faced a life-altering challenge, and overwhelmingly our response has seen cohesion, selflessness and great resilience. We have witnessed unprecedented ingenuity – in the amazing progress in developing vaccines but also in the wider use of technology in education and the economy.

As we look forward, we will show the same level of creativity and innovation to our re-invention of routes to renewed inclusive growth and focus on the goal of building a more equal and sustainable future. Through education we will empower people to retrain, adapt or develop new skills.

All this gives us hope. It makes us determined, as modern university leaders, to play our part in the recovery and in helping to support our communities through the transformative power of higher education.

Professor Nigel Seaton, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Abertay University

Professor Pamela Gillies, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Glasgow Caledonian University

Professor Andrea Nolan, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Edinburgh Napier University

Sir Paul Grice, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh

Professor Steve Olivier, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Robert Gordon University

Professor Neil Simco, Acting Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of the Highlands and Islands

Professor Craig Mahoney, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of the West of Scotland