Universities and Scotland Contents

2Scottish universities and devolution


5.The Scotland Act 19985 saw education, including higher education, devolved to Scotland. Funding and policy decisions on higher education are now taken primarily by the Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament and Scottish Funding Council.6 There are numerous areas of public policy that have implications for higher education in Scotland that either straddle the competencies of the UK and Scottish Governments, such as research and development, or that are entirely reserved to the UK Government, such as immigration and foreign affairs.

6.Public funding for university research and development in Scotland is delivered by a ‘dual support’ system compromising (a) a block grant given by the Scottish Funding Council, and (b) competitively awarded grants from UK-wide Research Councils.7 Scottish Funding Council research funding is provided to universities through the Research Excellence Grant. In academic year 2020–21 this Grant is providing Scottish universities with £240 million.8 UK funding for research and development mainly comes through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the UK Government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.9 It has UK-wide remit in respect of the science and humanities councils10 and is the UK’s largest public funder of research and innovation.11 UKRI spent £593 million in Scotland in 2018–19,12 although not all of this went to universities.

7.Foreign affairs and immigration are reserved to the UK Government and UK Parliament and have major implications for Scottish universities. For example, the RSE Young Academy of Scotland told us that Brexit, visa regulations and the cost of immigration impact on the attractiveness of Scottish universities as destinations for potential students and staff.13

Collaboration between the UK and Scottish Governments

Formal mechanisms for collaboration on matters affecting higher education

8.There are various formal mechanisms to facilitate UK and Scottish Government collaboration on matters affecting higher education in Scotland, such as Joint Ministerial Committees and Ministerial Implementation Groups.14 In addition, every fortnight there is usually a ‘tripartite meeting’ between Iain Stewart MP, UK Minister for Scotland, Richard Lochhead MSP, Scottish Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, and Michelle Donelan MP, UK Minister of State for Universities, to discuss higher education in the UK and Scotland. Minister Stewart told us that these meetings are a “very useful opportunity to catch up and look ahead at the different challenges that universities across Britain face, particularly in respect of the covid crisis”.15

State of the relationship

9.In relation to the intergovernmental working between Edinburgh and Westminster on higher education, Minister Lochhead informed us that there was “good engagement with our [UK Government] counterparts”.16 However, he expressed concern that:

Quite often we have the support of our UK counterparts in terms of the spirit of what we are asking for, but they are overruled, [ … ] by the Home Office and the Treasury when it comes to either funding issues or immigration issues.17

10.At the top of Minister Lochhead’s ‘wish list’ for improving collaboration between the UK and Scottish Governments on higher education is: “a joint plan, the two Governments acknowledging that higher education is something that, by design, straddles the devolved and reserved territories”.18

11.In relation to the intergovernmental working between Edinburgh and Westminster on higher education, Iain Stewart MP, UK Minister for Scotland, had the view that:

Behind the headlines, which I know excite politicos and journalists, there is very constructive working [ … ]. There is a perfectly amicable and constructive dialogue that goes on on a whole wide range of policy areas.19

12.Minister Stewart gave the example of the tripartite meetings as illustrative of the constructive relationship between the two governments.20 He also told us that:

There is official contact at many levels, and then indeed through Universities Scotland and Universities UK. There are a lot of demands that come up and that is part of the discussion. To give you a concrete example, there was a strong ask from the university sector in Scotland for the post-study work visas, and that ask directly influenced UK Government policy.21

13.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.

6 Universities UK, ‘Universities Scotland’, accessed 24 January 2021

7 Scottish Government, ‘Science and research’, accessed 7 April 2021

8 Scottish Funding Council, ‘Research funding’, accessed 7 April 2021

9 UKRI, ‘Who we are’, accessed 7 April 2021

10 Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, UKRI Framework Document, May 2018, p 38

11 UKRI, ‘What we do’, accessed 7 April 2021

12 UKRI, Regional distribution of UKRI spend, March 2021, p 19

13 RSE Young Academy of Scotland (USC0006) p 1

14 For more information on the relationship between the UK and Scottish Governments, please see our predecessor Committee’s Report: Scottish Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2017–19, The relationship between the UK and Scottish Governments, HC 1586

Published: 28 May 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement