The Scottish Government is firmly committed to equal access to higher education. Every child growing up in Scotland, regardless of their background, should have an equal chance of going to university. That is why we established the commission on widening access and accepted all 34 of its recommendations in full.
The latest Universities and Colleges Admissions Service data shows that the number of Scots getting a place at university is at a record high, as is the number of students from deprived areas. That is testament to our commitment to maintaining tuition-fee-free university education for eligible students from all backgrounds.
We should welcome the most recent statistics that show those trends. However, we do not welcome the fact that recent statistics show that there are serious shortages of graduates in key sectors. One in four general practitioner practices has a vacancy, hospitals are short of 2,400 nurses and midwives, and half of Scottish businesses say that they have a digital skills gap.
The Scottish Government has been receiving letters from the parents of an increasing number of extremely well qualified Scotland-domiciled pupils who are being turned away from university in Scotland, even when places might be available, because they are Scotland-domiciled and fall foul of the Scottish National Party’s capping policy. Does the First Minister think that that is fair and beneficial to the economy in Scotland?
Before we move on, let me dwell on the latest statistics for a moment, because I hope that members across the chamber will want to welcome them.
The statistics that have been issued by UCAS this morning show that the gap in getting places at university between those from the richest and those from the poorest backgrounds is now the smallest on record, and that it has been closing for the past three consecutive years.
On the wider question, the way in which Liz Smith characterises the situation betrays a misunderstanding of how the Scottish Government’s policy works. A set number of places are funded by the Scottish Government every year for Scotland-domiciled students. That is not a new policy. Those places are ring fenced; they are not subject to competition from students from the rest of the United Kingdom or international students.
The most important point, of course, is that the total number of funded places for Scotland-domiciled students in Scottish universities has increased. It increased in 2018-19 by 715 places over the previous year. Since 2012, there has been an increase of almost 2,500 places, with many of those having been targeted at areas including teacher education and nursing. The latest statistics show that the number of Scotland-domiciled students entering first-year medicine courses at Scottish higher education institutions has also increased.
Of course, resources are always finite: going back to our earlier discussions, I note that they will be even more finite if we follow the Tories’ tax policies. We will continue to take decisions that support record numbers of Scottish young people getting to university.
The final point that I will make is that I suspect that shortages right now of skilled workers in key sectors of the economy have a lot more to do with the Tories’ Brexit policy than with anything else.
The Presiding Officer:
I am conscious that a large number of members whom I was not able to call wished to ask supplementary questions today. I appeal to all members to keep their questions succinct, and to the First Minister to keep the answers similarly succinct. We will get more members in, that way.
12:47 Meeting suspended.
12:51 On resuming—