Scotland’s higher education sector is world leading. Ancient or modern, our universities make a distinct contribution to our economy, society, and local communities. They educate the next generation of professionals, including engineers, doctors, journalists, and teachers, as well as the entrepreneurs and innovators who drive prosperity. They produce ground-breaking research which challenges ideas, and changes lives, with the 2021 Research Excellence Framework concluding that every one of Scotland’s universities undertakes research judged to be of world-leading quality.i
It’s therefore encouraging to see that student numbers across the UK are projected to rise, reaching one million undergraduate applications by 2030; around 27% more than in 2021 and double the numbers seen in 2006. The hike in demand will be driven by strong demographic growth in the 18-year-old population, and an increase in the proportion of people seeking a university education. Analysis by UCAS suggests that demand from Scottish domiciled 18-year-olds for higher education across the UK, while on a lower trajectory compared to other regions, is also set to increase, by 17% between now and 2030. International demand across the UK, from applicants both inside and outside the EU, is projected to rise by 60% by the end of the decade.
This increase is welcome. It reflects an expanding appetite for learning, and the development of a skilled workforce that underpins a strong economy. However, if these benefits are to be realised, Scotland’s higher education system must be ready. Without appropriate reforms, a valuable opportunity will be missed.
Scotland’s universities are already underfunded. The current funding system, in place since 2008, provides for free undergraduate tuition for Scottish-domiciled students — with places for Scottish students capped — and institutions receiving a block grant towards learning and teaching from the Scottish Government. This is in marked contrast to the free market approach in England, where the higher £9,250 annual tuition fee is levied directly on the student, and where uncapped admissions numbers allow for uncapped income. Additionally, Scottish Government funding per full-time undergraduate student has fallen markedly over the past eight years. Between 2014/15 and 2022/23, the teaching grant has been cut by 27% in real terms, with Universities Scotland projecting that this will grow to a 37% cut in real terms by 2024/25.ii
The combination of the domestic recruitment cap on fully funded places in Scotland and real terms cuts, puts the sector’s finances at a significant disadvantage compared to our English counterparts. Data from 2021 already indicates a 10% funding gap between universities in Scotland and England, Scottish policymakers therefore face a number of urgent questions. Should the government cap on the number of fully funded Scottish students studying at Scottish universities be lifted in line with market demand? How should an uplift in the learning and teaching resource allocation per student be financed, to maintain parity with funding elsewhere in the UK? Can Scotland realistically remain the only part of the UK where undergraduates do not pay any tuition fees? My colleague Professor Sir Peter Mathieson, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, has called for a re-opening of this discussioniii , while the Scottish Conservatives suggest a shift from four-year to three-year degrees, enabling a raise of the student numbers cap.iv First Minister Humza Yousaf, however, remains committed to taxpayer-funded tuition for Scottish-domiciled students. Whatever the solution, policymakers in Scotland must act urgently to ensure that the funding system is put on a secure and sustainable footing.
The money that Scotland’s universities receive from the Scottish Government is, of course, required to fund more than core learning and teaching activity. Universities need to provide first-rate facilities to keep Scottish higher education attractive in a globalised marketplace, from study, sporting and social spaces which offer an exceptional student experience, to research facilities and comfortable, inviting student accommodation. Scottish universities are responding to this market demand and investing in the future: developments at the University of Stirling include our award-winning £23 million Campus Central development, which offers a modern, flexible learning and study environment at the heart of our beautiful campus. Additionally, as Scotland’s University for Sporting Excellence, our recently opened £20 million Sports Centre enables members of the community to train alongside our Olympic athletes, using state-of-the-art equipment. Unlike universities in England, these investments have been made without the growth in income associated with the uncapped recruitment of domestic, fee-paying students. In Stirling’s case, we have had to raise much of this capital ourselves, including through commercial loans, which increases the cost of investment compared to south of the border. This also makes us more reliant on other commercial revenue streams, such as catering, events and conferencing, and accommodation, to finance the long-term investment.
Underfunding in Scotland has also been masked significantly by revenue from fee-paying international students. This imbalance has made Scotland’s universities overly dependent on the global student recruitment marketvi, which can be volatile and subject to international shocks.vii Both the Covid-19 pandemic and the current cost of living crisis exemplify the risks associated with an over-reliance on international student fees to plug the funding shortfall.
In an increasingly globalised world, however, internationalisation is critical. Collaboration is essential in tackling universal challenges, such as climate change, and international education remains one of the UK’s most successful global exports. Each year more than 58,000 international students from 180 countries study in Scotland, with around 31% of students in Scotland coming from overseas.viii The benefits of internationalisation for all students cannot be overstated. Exposure to different cultures fosters shared understanding, helping our students grow into broad-minded, global citizens. Studying in the UK also gives international students a unique insight into our culture, helping us to lever a level of ‘soft power’ and influence around the world.ix
Despite this, the ability of universities to recruit internationally is tightly managed. The UK Government’s introduction of post-study work visas in 2021 was a welcome development, and must be maintained, but we should consider what more can be done for the UK to capitalise on the projected 60% increase in international demand in light of increasing global competition, especially from Australia, Canada and the United States.
Moreover, student visa allocations per institution are finite and based on historical situations. They now need to be increased, particularly as, since Brexit, the allocation must also accommodate applicants from EU countries as well as the rest of the world. The limited allocation also needs to include students who come to the UK on longer-term exchange programmes, in a post-Erasmus system. As student numbers grow, we must ensure that the experience of studying, including outward mobility, remains diverse and fulfilling, while creating new opportunities for students to study and learn through international partners.
Guaranteeing a rich and engaging university experience is particularly important for students from less privileged backgrounds. As demand increases, it is essential that higher education remains accessible. Scotland already has one of the most progressive access policies in the UK.x Our contextual admissions system recognises that applicants, with ability and potential but who live and deal with challenging circumstances, may not meet the entry requirements. Therefore, the Scottish sector ensures that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds do not lose out on the opportunity to fulfil their potential, guaranteeing a proportion of applicants adjusted offers at their institutions of choice.xi This builds on a culture that has been at the heart of the University of Stirling since our foundation 55 years ago, as a place where ability, not background, is valued.
We cannot afford to let that progress slip. As the sector adapts to increasing numbers, new approaches may be needed. The Scottish Government uses data from the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) to underpin the contextual admissions system, a metric that has been criticised as insufficient.xii Instead, the sector has been calling for a more progressive benchmark, such as free school meal provision. While maintaining contextual admissions, however, we must ensure that other, high-achieving students are not squeezed and displaced from the Scottish system because of the capped number of fully funded places.
In 2020/21 in Scotland, more than 7,500 college leavers with a Higher National Certificate (HNC) or Higher National Diploma (HND) transferred directly into the second or third year of undergraduate study, with an increasing number of non-traditional access pathways available.xiii How can this system be expanded to provide more opportunities for those who choose to take an alternative route? How can universities expand parallel, flexible models of provision? The benefits of greater modular learning and online delivery, including greater suitability for mature students or those in employment, have already been recognised.xiv Microcredentials, such as those on project management and machine-learning offered by the University of Stirlingxv, can also play a role in helping to plug current and future skills gaps.xvi Initiatives including the UK Government-funded Help to Grow scheme provide targeted learning for managers in SMEs to support enhanced performance and productivity.xvii These innovative models cater to a changing world, and Scotland must continue to adapt to that change.
Scotland’s universities are playing their part, through investing in the student experience, pioneering access initiatives, and trailblazing new modes of learning and teaching. However, we also need policymakers to rise to the challenge if we are to work together to meet the needs of our economy, and the expectations of learners. Without that coherent approach, and a sustainable funding model, Scotland stands to lose out on a valuable and exciting opportunity. As Professor Dame Sally Mapstone, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St Andrews and Convenor of Universities Scotland, wrote recently: "It would be a tragedy for the nation if our government’s unenlightened choice to disinvest from higher education means that we have to pass on a damaged legacy to our successors".xviii
Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of Stirling
Professor Sir Gerry McCormac has been Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Stirling since May 2010. A scientist who spent his early career working on the NASA Dynamics Explorer satellite program at the University of Michigan, he headed the high-precision carbon-dating facility at Queen’s University Belfast and was Pro-Vice-Chancellor for External Relations (2001–2010). A former board member of the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) and UCEA Scottish Committee Chair (2013-2020), Sir Gerry was Convener of Universities Scotland (2020 – 2022). A Universities UK (UUK) board member, Sir Gerry is UUKi International Policy Lead (2023 – 2026).