Principals warn that universities in Scotland will be left with a £200m funding gap after tuition fees are raised in England
Scottish university principals have again called for an end to free higher education after a report warned of a £200m funding gap following the introduction of higher fees in England.
Universities Scotland, the umbrella body for higher education institutions, said the case for a “fair and modest” payment by Scottish graduates was now unanswerable if current levels of teaching and student numbers were to be maintained.
Its stance has increased pressure on the next Scottish government to scrap a longstanding tradition of free university education for domestic students, in the face of moves to allow English universities to charge between £6,000 and £9,000 a year in tuition fees.
But its conclusions were immediately challenged by the Scottish government, Universities Scotland’s partner on the expert group that produced the report on funding, and by the National Union of Students Scotland.
Each side selected figures from the report that suited its policies. The universities used one of the highest figures based on the impact of inflation, while Scottish ministers chose figures that suited their current policy of funding universities entirely from general taxation.
The dispute – which has led to another rift on funding between the universities and Alex Salmond’s nationalist government – follows weeks of speculation that Scottish universities faced a funding shortfall of up to £500m.
The country’s leading colleges are now facing strikes, laying off staff and closing departments. Glasgow is planning to shut its modern languages and anthropology departments, while staff at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh are to take industrial action.
Salmond will campaign in this May’s elections for the Scottish parliament by insisting that the shortfall is actually much smaller, and can be met by the taxpayer without fees or graduate taxes.
His officials believe Universities Scotland has been highly selective with the report’s findings, by using a figure that included inflation and by ignoring the Scottish government’s plans to charge English students up to £6,500 a year to study in Scotland.
If those fees were included and the baseline figure did not include inflation, the gap was actually £93m. And that, sources said, did not include another £35m in expected efficiency savings. Ministers are expected to promise this gap will be met by the government.
Mike Russell, the Scottish education secretary, said: “That is a significant amount of money but, critically, it is an amount that allows a political choice to be made.
“It is nothing like some of the ridiculous scare story figures bandied about by the proponents of one solution or another.”
However, Alastair Sim, the director of Universities Scotland, said: “The size of this gap makes it hard to see how public funding alone would be enough to sustain Scotland’s universities without fairly significant reprioritisations from within the public purse.
“A fair and modest contribution from those graduates who see financial benefit from their degrees could help to maintain availability of places, assure quality of education and keep the sector competitive.”
NUS Scotland accused Universities Scotland of “scaremongering” and misrepresenting the true scale of the funding gap in a deliberate attempt to bounce voters into accepting tuition fees.
It said the report had shown that fees were a “choice, not a necessity”.
Liam Burns, president of NUS Scotland, said: “We’ve seen huge figures thrown around over the last few months, speculating what any funding gap for Scottish universities might be.
“Now we know the truth. While there is a funding gap, it can certainly be bridged without resorting to charging people for their education, through tuition fees or a graduate contribution.”
The NUS will now be putting Labour, currently narrow favourites to win May’s election, under pressure to pledge it would not charge students. Labour has said it believes some form of charge is now highly likely and refused to rule out a graduate tax or contribution.
Des McNulty, Labour’s education spokesman, refused to state what his party’s funding proposal would be.
He said it was the Scottish government’s responsibility to produce a viable proposal, and suggested using government funds was simply a “short term fix” which was not sustainable.
He said Labour wanted a system that was “founded on clear principles, enjoys the broadest possible political consensus, provides a sustainable settlement for Scotland’s universities, is fair for students and ensures adequate student support. Labour is not in favour of tuition fees as part of a solution”.
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