Scottish universities facing 'existential threat' amid calls for more funding

Scotland’s higher and further education sectors are facing an “existential threat” due to the Scottish Government’s decision to not fully fund free university tuition, MSPs have claimed.

Funding of universities came under sharp focus at Holyrood
Funding of universities came under sharp focus at Holyrood

However, at an appearance at Holyrood’s education committee, Education Secretary John Swinney rejected the assertion and said he believed tertiary education were being “strongly funded” by the Scottish Government.

Both Jamie Greene, the Scottish Conservatives education spokesperson, and Iain Gray, his Scottish Labour counterpart, pushed Mr Swinney on the Scottish Government’s plans for funding universities and colleges in the next financial year.

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Universities Scotland, the representative body for the sector, said in a submission to the committee that institutions faced a deficit of £176.1 million in 2020/21 and required more than £205m in additional funding.

Mr Gray claimed the figures meant there was an “existential crisis” for universities due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

He said: "If free tuition is a central Scottish Government policy, which I think it is and has been for a very long time now, do you not think Cabinet Secretary that you are duty bound to actually fully fund that engagement in university for each student?

"Wouldn’t you agree that of all years, this year, or the budget year that you are considering now is the one where finally the Scottish Government should meet its obligation and actually fully fund university tuition fees for Scottish students attending Scottish universities? Wouldn’t that be an enormous step forward that you could commit to now?”

in response, Mr Swinney said he believed the Scottish Government was “fully meeting” its commitment to universities.

He said: "I think the Scottish Government has been fully meeting its commitments to the university sector, so I reject the central premise of Mr Gray’s question. I think the government has been doing that substantially.

"Mr Gray rather glides past some of the other investments the Scottish Government has made - £75m of additional research income for universities is a substantial commitment to the work of our universities and that assists universities in taking forward some significant parts of their activities.

"I think when members of the committee step back and look at the totality of resources that the government is making available to our universities … I think it looks very clear and demonstrable that the government is providing substantial resources to universities.”

Mr Greene had earlier in the session raised the claim the Scottish Government had overseen a drop of £750 in real-terms support for each student studying at a Scottish university since 2014/15.

In response, Mr Swinney said: “I think the university sector is and has been strongly and well supported financially by the government and the resources we put in place are designed to ensure our universities are able to perform in the world-class fashion many of them are able to do so.

"Maintaining a sustainable approach to university funding is critical to ensuring universities can continue to perform in a very strong fashion.

"There is a strong funding record there for universities and I want to make sure that continues for the period to come.”

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