Expert calls for a fresh review of university funding

Originally published in The Herald, 28/10/2009

Pressure is mounting on the Scottish Government to hold an independent review into the funding of higher education.

A leading expert on student finance will today warn Fiona Hyslop, the Education Secretary, that a review is needed to ensure Scotland’s universities can compete on the world stage in future.

Sir Andrew Cubie, who was responsible for a major report into student finance a decade ago, is expected to make the call at a reception in Edinburgh hosted by NUS Scotland and attended by Ms Hyslop.

The Scottish Conservative Party has already called for an independent review in response to competition from top-up fees in England and the squeeze on public finances.

Sir Andrew will also highlight the importance of financial contributions from graduates to help increase funding – despite the fact the government has already scrapped the graduate endowment.

“I think there is now a need for a very broadly based review. It could be one which would address not just the constant comparisons between Scotland and England, but the position of Scotland in the wider world,” he will say.

“We need to have regard to the internationally competitive position of Scotland’s higher education system and it would be good, in such a review, if we got away from what is a constant preoccupation of just looking south.”

Sir Andrew believes it is not a foregone conclusion that a review would conclude the only additional contribution to funding should come through increasing fees for students.

Instead, he will return to the theme of financial contributions students can make once they complete their studies.

Following Sir Andrew’s review, the graduate endowment was introduced to Scotland – a one-off payment made by graduates to help universities widen access. However, the SNP scrapped the graduate endowment once they took power.

Sir Andrew is expected to say: “I think we need to look very closely at models which can apply after graduation.

“Unless we look very comprehensively at aspects of that funding then we are not going to be able to compete as we should, and my strong belief is that some form of additional funding has to come.

“It has never been part of a proposition from me that there should not be some form of graduate contribution ... and it is therefore in that area that I would have thought some focus should come.”

Liam Burns, president of NUS Scotland, welcomed the speech, but called for a reform of the student support system.

“Sir Andrew has made clear the urgent need to look again at student funding in Scotland,” he said. “We struggle to attract students from poorer backgrounds and, when we do, we struggle to keep them.

“While Sir Cubie has stated that we need to look at how we pay for universities, NUS Scotland believes that the pressing concern is reforming the student support system.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The joint university taskforce, which reported only last year, recommended considerable changes to the way our record funding of more than £1 billion a year for universities is allocated. Those changes are starting to being implemented by the Scottish Funding Council.

“Under those changes, two new funds have been created – a General Fund for mainstream activity and the Horizon Fund to provide new opportunities and incentives which support delivery of the Government’s priorities and each university’s mission and strengths.

“Given that these changes are being implemented for the first time this year, we consider it is premature to be reviewing the system again.

“In relation to calls for graduates or students to make a contribution, we have made clear that access to university should be based on the ability to learn not the ability to pay and by abolishing the graduate endowment fee, we have restored the principle of free education in Scotland, benefiting up to 50,000 students and graduates.

“We have no plans to re-introduce graduate contributions or tuition fees.”