Universities and Scotland Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Scottish universities and devolution

1.Although higher education is a devolved competence, reserved UK Government policies—such as foreign affairs, immigration and research and development—have significant consequences for UK and Scottish universities. We recommend that the UK Government continues to work with the Scottish Government (and the other devolved administrations) acknowledging that higher education cuts across the competencies of all UK Governments and should outline how the Governments will work together to better deliver higher education in Scotland, for example through the tripartite meeting. (Paragraph 13)

Finances of Scottish universities

2.In mid-2020 insolvency was a very real prospect facing a number of universities in Scotland. Both the UK and Scottish Governments should be congratulated on their efforts and significant financial investments into Scottish universities in response to the pandemic. It is quite possible that without that support, some institutions may not have survived. We also welcome the commitment made by the Scottish Government that it will make every effort to ensure that no university becomes insolvent as a result of the pandemic. (Paragraph 38)

3.Public sector funding for higher education in Scotland has reduced by 12% in real terms in seven years. In addition, despite the policy of free tuition for Scottish students, and a cap on Scottish student numbers, only 90% of the costs of teaching Scottish students at Scottish universities are covered by the Scottish Government. We recognise that this leaves a 10% gap in funding that must be filled via alternative means. The main way Scottish universities fill this gap is through international students, who account for more than 16% of all income across Scottish universities, a large proportion of which comes from Chinese students. As we have seen with large fluctuations in the number of Indian students studying in the UK and the implications of the pandemic, international student numbers are potentially volatile and can be influenced by a number of internal and external factors. The Scottish Government and Scottish universities should work with the UK Government and universities in other parts of the UK to seek out examples of best practice in diversifying income streams away from potentially volatile international student fees. In doing so great care should be taken to ensure that core focus on education and research is not lost in favour of commercialised corporate ventures. (Paragraph 52)

4.EU students paying international student rates can provide a new and potentially lucrative income stream for Scottish universities, though this new income stream may face the same risks posed to fees from international students. Although applications from EU students have dropped by about 40% for 2021–22 (that year being the first year that EU students will pay the new rates), this is a lower drop than many in the sector had feared, and Scottish universities will now receive four to five times more income per EU student than was previously the case. That said, it is important that, following Brexit, Scotland is still able to attract the brightest and best from the EU. This is not only because EU students tend to gravitate towards vital STEM subjects (which can otherwise be difficult to recruit for), but also because EU students are more likely to stay on in Scottish academia/research once they graduate than other international students. These students can play a key role in our economic recovery following the pandemic. The UK Government should launch a new or expanded scholarship scheme to encourage the most talented EU students to study in the UK and Scotland. This would help heal UK-EU divides following Brexit, assist in combating falling EU student numbers in Scotland and provide a new pathway to attract and retain the brightest and best from the EU. In addition, the UK Government should increase funding to Study UK in order to increase their capacity to target EU students who may be hesitant to study in the UK. (Paragraph 62)

Student welfare, experience and opportunities

5.Students in Scotland, as with so many groups, faced unprecedented challenges over the course of the pandemic. Whilst we welcome the investments the Scottish Government has made in student wellbeing and mental health during this period, we have heard evidence of structural underfunding that predated the pandemic, long waiting lists and poor triaging of mental health inquiries. This is, in turn, pushing the provision of student mental health support onto academic staff, many of whom report facing challenges of their own, and may not be appropriately trained. The Scottish Government should look again at the provision of mental health services to university students, including by reviewing current triaging processes related to mental health inquiries, to ensure that students are being quickly directed to the appropriate services and support providers. The Scottish Government should also consider whether further investment may be needed in order to shorten mental health support waiting lists for university students (in the same way it has recently done for college students and staff through an additional £4.4 million of mental health support), thereby also reducing pressures on higher education academic staff. (Paragraph 73)

6.Scottish universities are dependent on immigration decisions made at UK-level but have limited opportunities to influence those decision-making processes. Given that the UK and Scottish Governments both recognise the importance of reflecting Scottish interests in UK immigration policies, the UK Government should submit a full formal response to our predecessor Committee’s Report of 4 July 2018 on Immigration and Scotland, which covered the immigration issues associated with international students in Scotland. It would be particularly helpful if the Government would respond to the parts of the Report which focus on issues affecting students. (Paragraph 81)

7.Until 17 December 2020, one week before the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement was reached, the UK Government was reassuring Parliament that UK participation in Erasmus+ was intended to be included within the UK-EU deal. Given that Erasmus+ disproportionally benefited Scotland compared to other parts of the UK, we are disappointed that no agreement on this could be reached. Nevertheless, we support the Government’s Turing Scheme, especially that it should benefit 35,000 UK students per year (compared to 17,000 under Erasmus+), and that it will open international opportunities wider than just the EU. We look forward to working with UK Government on this and the International Education Strategy. (Paragraph 100)

8.We note with regret however that the Turing scheme will not—as currently envisaged—support inward placements to the UK. As the Government recognises, as well as providing Scottish universities and local economies with an important income source, inward placements support the cultural education and experience of UK students in a way that is difficult to replicate by other means. They also support Scottish universities’ internationalisation agenda by promoting them on a global platform and building international networks that can last a lifetime. We also regret that there is currently no long-term funding commitment beyond year-one of the Turing Scheme to the principle of international student exchange. Subject to positive year-one results from the Turing Scheme, we recommend not only that the scheme continue with at least the same level of funding in future years, but that it be expanded to incorporate the funding of international student and academic staff placements to the UK. (Paragraph 101)

9.The Scottish Government has indicated a desire to remain in the Erasmus+ programme. Should they decide to continue down this path and be willing to cover the associated costs, and should the EU consent to Scottish participation, the UK Government should not block this endeavour (at least until such a point that the Turing Scheme can facilitate inward exchanges). (Paragraph 106)

Academic research by universities in Scotland

10.The UK Government should be praised for its UK Research and Development Roadmap, especially the commitment to reach 2.4% of GDP spend in this area, which has been extensively welcomed by academic institutions in Scotland. The UK Government should ensure that the commitments it made in the UK Research and Development Roadmap are not derailed as a result of the temporary reduction in UK ODA spend. (Paragraph 120)

11.The work of Scottish universities in combating covid-19 has been nothing short of remarkable. Going forward, the academic outputs of Scottish universities will not only support our economic recovery following the pandemic but also bolster the UK’s standing in the world as we forge new post-Brexit international relationships. In return, Scottish academic research institutions deserve appropriate recognition and influence at UK-level. Scottish institutions should be given greater prominence and influence within UKRI decision-making structures. That should include a seat on the UKRI Board (as is already the case for English institutions such as the London School of Economics and the University of Cambridge), which is at the discretion of the Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, and a seat on the UKRI Executive Committee, for example for the Scottish Funding Council (in the same way that Research England are already represented), which is at the discretion of UKRI CEO (who should take into account public sector goals, such as ensuring that the voices of all UK nations are appropriately welcomed and heard). (Paragraph 130)

12.The Horizon programme has been, and will continue to be, vital to Scottish academic research. It aids Scotland’s universities in their quest to tackle the biggest global challenges. We praise the UK Government for ensuring the UK’s continued participation; it is an investment worth making. Concerns have however been raised about the UK’s status as a non-EU member. The UK Government should ensure that the UK reaps the maximum possible benefits from Horizon Europe in areas such as health, climate and energy and is not disadvantaged as a non-EU member or inappropriately excluded from relevant programmes. In addition if, for any reason, the UK receives less in competitive grants than its financial contributions, the UK Government should explore why this might be and, if appropriate, seek to adjust its financial contribution accordingly. (Paragraph 138)

13.Scottish universities are inherently international institutions; international collaborations play a big part in their successes. In addition, Scottish universities act as much-valued international hubs in their local communities, bringing important cultural benefits. Scottish universities’ internationalisation agenda should therefore be supported. The UK Government has a major role to play in this in terms of how it develops its foreign and immigration policies. The UK Government should be praised for introducing the post-study work visa, which plays a key role in attracting, and then retaining, the brightest and best students from overseas. The Global Talent visa is also very welcome, but its cost should be addressed. Wellcome has highlighted that, for an international academic with a spouse and children to move to the UK, it would cost around £13,000 for visas (and associated costs) to work in the UK under a five-year Global Talent visa, compared to around £1,000 in France. In order to allow Scotland to remain competitive and attractive to the best international research talent, who can bring so much to our economy and society, the UK Government should reduce the cost of visas for international researchers and their families, to a level competitive with countries such as France. If the UK Government decides not to reduce the cost of the Global Talent visa (and associated costs for the families of ‘lead’ applicants), the UK Government should seek to justify the reasons for these high fees in comparison to other countries. The UK Government should also take a pragmatic approach to researcher visa extensions, especially in light of covid-19, which has caused unavoidable delays to some research projects. (Paragraph 147)

14.Academic institutions in Scotland depend on partnerships and connections with institutions across the EU. That includes academics who come from the EU to work in Scotland, who often specialise in highly technical areas which can be difficult to recruit from elsewhere. Whilst immigration policies are key, it’s also important to create a hospitable environment where academics feel welcome. We have heard during our inquiry that academics from the EU working in Scotland have been returning to the EU, and that job applications from EU academics are being withdrawn. We have been told that this is not because they are not allowed to stay or come to Scotland, it is because they do not feel welcome following Brexit. The UK Government must promote a positive narrative—including by using its significant diplomatic reach—that, whilst we have left the EU, the UK and Scotland remain an attractive place to work for EU nationals and the brightest and best the EU has to offer are not just ‘allowed’ to work here, but are actively welcomed. (Paragraph 151)

Published: 28 May 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement