Further and Higher Education

– in the Scottish Parliament on 9th July 2020.

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Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a statement by Richard Lochhead on supporting further and higher education. The minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

In the midst of this global health crisis, I start by paying tribute to our world-leading universities and colleges in Scotland. The pandemic has placed unprecedented demands on the sector, yet the response of our colleges and universities has—as I am sure we all agree—been quite remarkable, given how quickly they have had to adapt to a new set of very challenging circumstances that they could never have imagined. They have risen to those challenges and we thank them for it.

I also put on record the significant work that is under way in the community learning and development sector to support some of Scotland’s most vulnerable adults and young people. That sector continues to deliver essential support despite the challenges of Covid-19. I want all the people who work in that sector to know that their efforts have been recognised and are very much appreciated by the Scottish Government and, indeed, this Parliament.

We know that the pandemic is an unprecedented external shock, and it requires Government and institutions to work very closely together. That is why I set up a leadership group as early as March, when the impact first began to emerge. The group brings together senior leaders from across post-16 education—from principals to union leaders and student representatives—and we get round a virtual table regularly to discuss how best to respond to this significant crisis. It is overseeing our work on a wide range of issues, including financial sustainability and digital poverty. I thank all members of the group for their tireless efforts.

The fact remains that Covid-19 is having a massive impact on our further and higher education sectors. Factors including international student mobility and a drop in commercial income and charitable and industry research income all combine to pose a potentially huge challenge to the sector, albeit that we do not and will not know the full extent of that challenge for some time. Of course, this is not simply a Scottish or United Kingdom problem, but a global problem.

Today, I published a summary of our immediate support for our institutions and how we are looking towards what might be needed in the future. Our further and higher education sustainability plan includes additional resources. We have now provided £75 million to protect world-leading research in our institutions, £10 million for estates development, an international student action plan, an additional £5 million across further and higher education for student support, and early access to £11.4 million of HE hardship funds. Importantly, our universities will also have access to the grants and substantial long-term, low-interest loans related to research that the UK Government announced on 27 June.

It is important that we are clear about one critical point, which is that our colleges and universities absolutely deserve the utmost support, because they are vital to the solution that Scotland needs to get through and out of this crisis. That fact was recognised in Bernard Higgins’s recently published report, “Towards a Robust, Resilient Wellbeing Economy for Scotland: Report of the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery”, which is one of the key reasons why I asked the Scottish Funding Council to lead a review of provision and financial sustainability to ensure that colleges and universities are able to play that role. Its work will shape an important part of the Government’s thinking on our future strategy for tertiary education in Scotland.

Institutional health is one aspect of our plan and support for students is another. Online learning, in particular, has arrived with a bang for much of the sector, and so have some of the subsequent challenges of that, such as some learners being unable to enjoy the full benefits of connectivity. On digital support, the Scottish Government has already invested more than £40 million in supporting access to digital technology. Today, I announce that we will go further and invest an additional £5 million to help bridge the digital divide for students in Scotland. That will see investment in adaptive technologies for students with disabilities, increased online support and, for the most disadvantaged, provision of the devices that they need to access learning.

I am pleased to say that our colleges and universities will be open for business after the summer. Students from Scotland, the rest of the UK and overseas can be confident of receiving the benefits of an excellent Scottish education. As the First Minister said in her message to international students just a few days ago, our prime focus will also be their safety.

From Monday 13 July, time-sensitive mandatory or regulated skills assessments that are essential to the completion of modern apprenticeship qualifications or to comply with a legal obligation may resume in our colleges.

From 22 July, colleges and universities can begin a phased return to on-campus learning as part of a blended model with remote teaching. Appropriate safety measures, including physical distancing, will of course be in place; 2m physical distancing remains the default and institutions should continue to plan for the new term on that basis. However, as we enter phase 3 of the route map and move forward, exemptions will be considered for specific sectors and settings where agreed additional mitigations must be put in place. That would allow organisations in relevant sectors, if they choose, to operate with a 1m distance, on the condition that agreed mitigations, fully recorded in risk assessments, are implemented. We are now looking at whether such exemptions might be applied to colleges and universities in certain circumstances. We will provide an update on that work as soon as we can.

Our approach throughout this crisis has been to ensure the continued safety of staff and students, and I want to be clear that that remains our absolute priority. I know that for prospective and continuing students this has been a worrying and uncertain time, but our institutions remain world class, welcoming and open, and, with the measures set out in our guidance, they will remain safe. Today’s new Universities and Colleges Admissions Service figures show a 16 per cent increase in the number of non-European Union applications to our universities—the highest in the UK—which an encouraging sign that the message is getting through.

As if the monumental challenge of Covid-19 was not enough, the challenge of Brexit is about to become very real. Covid coincides with Brexit, presenting a double whammy for our universities and colleges. Let me remind the chamber that it is the UK Government that turned its back on Europe, not Scotland, and now its chaotic handling of the entire Brexit process jeopardises the future success of our colleges and universities. Those institutions, our students and young people and our research excellence have all disproportionately benefited from EU membership compared to their UK counterparts, and they will now be disproportionately harmed.

The Scottish Government has always been clear that its overwhelming priority is for Scotland to remain a part of Erasmus+ and horizon 2020 for their unparalleled educational, cultural and economic benefits. Scotland gains a huge amount from those programmes and we secure proportionally more funding under both than any other part of the UK does.

We were told by UK Government that we would be “co-creators” in building the UK’s future relationship with international mobility. No one in the chamber will be surprised to hear that, instead, negotiations have been frustrating and the tendency to consult us on decisions after they are taken continues, such as in relation to the recent decision that any UK alternative to Erasmus+ would not subsidise inward mobility. We will continue to be open and constructive, but the clock is ticking and I am afraid that the signals on Erasmus+ point towards a poorer outcome for young Scots compared to the advantages that previous generations enjoyed. Equally, there is no good Brexit for university research and we are still not any clearer about the future of horizon 2020. Members should remember that Audit Scotland warned of a Brexit cost of £211 million to our universities. I will keep Parliament up to date with any progress in those areas.

Even though the full impact of Brexit is yet to be seen, I must now set out its effect on EU tuition fees. As a result of EU law, since the Scottish Government abolished tuition fees, we have treated EU students in the same way that we treat students from Scotland: they do not pay tuition fees. It is only as a result of EU law applying in Scotland that that has been possible—indeed, it has been mandatory. Our EU law obligations cease at the end of the transition period in a few months, and continuing with that arrangement from 2021-22 would significantly increase the risk of any legal challenge.

Following the UK’s vote to leave the EU, I announced that the 2020-21 academic year was a transition year for the policy, and it is with a heavy heart that we have taken the difficult decision to end free education for new EU students from the academic year 2021-22 onwards, as a direct consequence of Brexit. However, EU students who have already started their studies or who start this autumn will not be affected and will still be tuition free for the entirety of their course. That is the stark reality of Brexit and a painful reminder that our country’s decisions are affected by UK policies that we did not support or vote for.

Our internationalism remains a key strength of higher education in Scotland, so we will discuss with the sector an ambitious scholarship programme to ensure that the ancient European nation of Scotland continues to attract significant numbers of European students to study here.

As a consequence of the decision that we have taken on EU students, we must also decide what happens to the funding that currently supports those places. I can confirm that we will not remove the funding that we currently devote to paying EU student fees from the overall funding for the sector. Under current trends, following further analysis, we estimate that that could be up to £19 million for 2021-22 alone.

As a result of that decision, that new flexibility for the sector should lead to an increase in the number of students from Scotland getting a place at university at a time when our young people face the economic impact of Covid-19. No doubt that will provide some significant support at an important time.

As we respond to Covid-19 and Brexit, I want to emphasise to the chamber that the continued success of our colleges and universities is crucial to our economic prosperity and to our future social wellbeing and it must be central to this county’s recovery, which we must now build. Our colleges and universities provide our people with life chances and skills and are the engines that power our society. They are a source of strength for our nation and we must protect them. This Government will stand by them to meet the challenges and grasp the exciting opportunities that lie ahead, and I hope that Parliament will support us as we do that.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The minister will now take questions on the issues that were raised in his statement. We have about 20 minutes for questions, after which we will conclude. It would be helpful if members who wish to ask a question could press their request-to-speak buttons.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

I thank the minister for advance sight of his statement and I pay tribute to those in our colleges and universities, especially the staff, who have been faced with unprecedented challenges in these past few difficult months.

Like others, I welcome those who come to Scotland to study. They enrich our campuses and universities. Equally, however, we have a duty to deliver fairness for Scottish students. The cessation of the Government’s policy of offering free university education to European Union students in Scotland must come with an upside for Scottish students. Now that there is no longer an obligation to fund EU students, it is only right that those funds are used to support Scottish students to go to Scottish universities. To do that, the Scottish Government can start by lifting the unfair cap on Scotland-domiciled students, which we know denies 15,000 Scots a place at university every year in this country. It is a reality—an appalling one—that Scottish students with as many as eight A grades in their highers are rejected by universities, such are the current funding structures. Surely that cannot be allowed to continue.

The truth is that today’s announcement barely scratches the surface of the deep-cutting financial problems that the sector faces. Way before the Covid crisis, the sector faced an estimated black hole of around £500 million, and the stark reality is that the sector has faced dire financial outcomes for many years under its current structures. Everybody knows that and today’s announcement will not change it.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

P lease get to the question, Mr Greene.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

I will ask the minister a specific question. Will the £97 million that we currently spend on funding EU undergraduates stay in the higher education sector in its entirety, and in what capacity? How will the savings go towards lifting that cap on places for Scottish students? How many places does he think will be freed up?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You must conclude now; you have gone well over your time.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I said that you must conclude. Please sit down.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I thank Mr Greene for his opening comments, but he paints an inaccurate picture of what is happening in higher education. Over the past couple of years, record numbers of Scottish students have attended Scottish universities and there has been a growing economic contribution from our universities and higher education institutions. The sector is in a healthy state. It is true that we face the twin challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit, yet it is Jamie Greene’s party that is foisting Brexit on the sector—Brexit being the only threat that the sector faced before Covid.

Today, the new UCAS figures show an overall 3 per cent increase in the number of applications to Scottish universities. As I said in my statement, that includes a 16 per cent increase in applications from non-EU overseas students. That tells me that our sector is performing wonderfully well and is selling well its message to the rest of the world about coming here for quality education in a safe environment, and I congratulate it on that.

To answer Jamie Greene’s key point, as I said in my statement, the money that is currently devoted to EU students will remain in the higher education budget. Therefore, at a time when, given the potential significant economic downturn, young people will be looking for options, that is good news for the number of Scottish students who can attend our universities.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I thank the minister for early sight of his statement. I certainly agree with him that our tertiary education sector will be critical to rebuilding a modern, high-skilled economy that is driven by research and innovation, so our universities and colleges must be protected. However, prior to the pandemic, they already faced an uncertain financial future. Audit Scotland repeatedly warned us about the financial fragility of colleges, and university funding has been cut by more than 11 per cent in recent years.

The UCAS figures that show that applications are holding up are welcome, but universities still fear that many of those international students will not in fact arrive in September, which will have serious financial consequences. Does the minister have a contingency plan for our universities, or is he just crossing his fingers that those students will appear?

Secondly, there is no additional financial support for colleges. Will the minister at least guarantee the FE settlement in the 2020-21 budget, even if outcomes are disrupted in that sector?

Finally, colleges and universities are planning now for their new term activities in September. If pubs, restaurants and public transport can be told now to plan for 1m social distancing, why cannot colleges and universities?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Our universities and colleges are national assets and we should be very proud of them. We have seen an increasing number of students and international students recently, and we are seeing research success after research success, so we should not be painting pictures of doom and gloom.

Yes, there are financial challenges, and now we see the twin challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit. I have asked the Scottish Funding Council to look at many of the points that Iain Gray legitimately raises about the sector’s future finances, how it is funded and how the funding is used in the sector to ensure that we are fleet of foot and agile as a country. There are lots of international competitors out there doing really good things, so we cannot stand still. I absolutely accept that, which is why we have commissioned the Scottish Funding Council to look at those points.

On resources, many of the budgets that I mentioned in my statement apply to colleges, where further and higher education is provided. Higher education is provided by colleges as well as universities, so those funds benefit colleges to a significant degree, albeit that the £75 million for research is for universities—I accept that.

If we are to devote more money to colleges and universities, Iain Gray has to tell us where that should come from. As Kate Forbes said in her statement, we are limited in terms of how we can borrow and therefore we rely on consequentials from the UK Government. We have not yet had consequentials to help us give further support to our colleges and universities, so I urge members from all parties to put pressure on the UK Government to allow us to do more to help our universities and colleges.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Eleven members have questions. I would like short questions and answers if possible, please.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

Many of my Motherwell and Wishaw constituents benefit from universities’ widening access agendas. Covid has compounded retention problems for some of those students. They are not able to claim universal credit over the summer and jobs are limited, so there are financial strains, and general societal problems, such as mental health issues, will affect many of them at this time.

What conversations has the minister had with colleges and universities to ensure that one of the unintended consequences is not the widening of social inequality?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Clare Adamson raises a very important point. The Deputy First Minister and I have been discussing regularly what more we can do in the times ahead to support those who will bear the brunt of the impact of the Covid-19 crisis in Scotland and who could be even further away from education as a result.

That is why the community learning and development sector, as well as our colleges and universities, has a big role to play.

At the recent leadership group meeting that I mentioned, the commissioner for widening access gave us advice on what we can do to make sure that, in the economic crisis that we are potentially facing, the impact on widening access is not too detrimental.

I assure Clare Adamson that we are giving due attention to issues of student hardship and the impact of the economic crisis on those who are further away from education.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

I know that further and higher education institutions stand ready to assist in skills support, which will be vital, as the minister said, as we emerge from the coronavirus outbreak.

The First Minister welcomed the proposal in the Higgins report for a jobs guarantee scheme. Will the minister clarify whether he envisages that education will form part of the scheme, through colleges and universities? What part can such institutions play?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

That is a good question from Jamie Halcro Johnston. There is no doubt that our colleges, in particular, will have a big role to play in taking forward some of these policies. As he can imagine, the detail will be worked out in the coming weeks. We are in regular discussion with the Scottish Funding Council and the further and higher education sectors about the role that they will play in ensuring that Scotland has the skills pipeline that it needs for the post-Covid-19 economy. That is a really important issue, which is wrapped up in all the issues to do with apprenticeships and so on. It is an important debate, and I will keep the Parliament updated.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

The minister is an alumnus of the University of Stirling, in my constituency, so he will know that the university has a reputation for world-class research and teaching and is attractive to international students. The university has been working hard to ensure that it is ready for the coming academic year and ready to again welcome students from around the world.

I note what the minister said about the increase in applications from overseas, which is welcome. Will he say what the Scottish Government is doing to support the University of Stirling and universities throughout Scotland, to reassure international students that our universities are a safe environment in which to undertake their studies?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I thank Keith Brown for mentioning the University of Stirling, for which I have a soft spot for the reason that he gave—as do other members who are in the chamber. I take the opportunity to congratulate Gerry McCormac, the university’s principal, who has taken over as chair of Universities Scotland—my interaction with the University of Stirling is likely to be heightened over the coming weeks and months.

I assure Keith Brown that the University of Stirling and all Scottish universities are represented on the leadership group and will make their views extremely well known on the way forward for the whole sector and for Scotland. I am sure that the University of Stirling will benefit from measures that we implement across the board.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

The fact that applications from international students are up is no guarantee that those places will be taken up. Fees worth some £700 million are still at risk. There is growing concern that, in the absence of additional Scottish Government financial support, higher education institutions will seek to claw back shortfalls through non-tuition-related fees and charges, such as accommodation charges. What steps will the minister take to ensure that no such additional charges are imposed, given the impact on student hardship that such an approach would have?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I expect all institutions in Scotland to be sensitive to the financial situation that existing and prospective students face at the current time.

The member paints an inaccurate picture. The Scottish Government allocated a one-off payment of £75 million for university research early on in the crisis, which the sector warmly welcomed. Some principals told me that that was a lot more than the UK Government had done for the sector, even though Scotland has a population of only 5.4 million.

I accept that there is more to be done and I assure Daniel Johnson that we are having intense conversations with the UK Government, because many issues in this context relate to the Treasury and reserved issues, such as the main part of research funding. We are seeking further help for the sector and we are helping as much as we can do within our powers. A welcome package has been announced by the UK Government, but we are waiting for the detail of that. We hope that it will deliver consequentials to Scotland so that we can provide the help that Daniel Johnson wants us to provide.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

I called on the Scottish Government to cease paying the tuition fees of European Union students, so I welcome the decision in that regard, which I think should apply from this autumn. Will the minister explain why new EU students who start courses this year will not have to pay tuition fees at any time during their courses? Would the resources that are used in that way not be better spent on Scottish students?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I hope that Kenny Gibson agrees that the presence of European students on Scottish campuses has been very much valued over many years. One of the reasons for Scotland’s incredible reputation throughout the world on education is the internationalism of our campuses and the strength of the educational experience that students get in our country. That benefits our students too, not just other students.

That is why I have always been a firm supporter of membership of the European Union, our participation in Erasmus+ and horizon 2020 and our meeting our obligations to deliver home-fee status for European students who study in this country. We will stick to our commitment and the contract that we have with existing EU students, who will receive funding for the remainder of their courses. Last year, we announced that this academic year would be a transition year while we waited to see what happened with Brexit.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

Despite the financial crisis at Perth College UHI, the institution has continued to fill management posts during lockdown, which has concerned lecturers and students with regard to the pressure that it is under to cut 21 teaching posts. Given that the University of the Highlands and Islands is the only publicly funded higher or further education institution that lacks a collective bargaining agreement for all staff, does the minister agree that it should develop one urgently in order to meet the Government’s fair work agenda?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

As Mark Ruskell will know, our colleges and universities have a responsibility to cut their cloth, ensure that their books balance and run their institutions with the funds that are made available to them by the Scottish Funding Council or that come from other sources. The matter that Mark Ruskell highlights is therefore a matter for Perth College and UHI.

However, I note that, given the pressures that people are facing in their personal lives due to Covid-19 and their concerns about job security at this sensitive time, all our institutions should be sensitive to the needs of their employees. I am confident that that is the case, but I will keep reiterating that message. We have a fair work agenda, which should always be respected by our colleges and universities.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Does Richard Lochhead agree with Universities Scotland’s analysis, which claims that there is now £127.6 million less invested each year into Scottish universities than in 2014-15? That means that there was almost £700 less Government funding for every Scottish student at university last year. Is it not due to Scottish Government policy that those cuts have happened?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Liz Smith is quoting figures from Universities Scotland, but she might also want to look at the financial situations that some colleges and universities in England are currently facing.

We have had 10 years of austerity since the Conservative Party took office in 2010. We would have loved to have been in the position to allocate even more resources—we have managed to protect resources for our colleges and universities very well and increase them from time to time—but the 10 years of austerity have not always made that possible.

To help us to cope with the Covid-19 crisis, we look now to the UK Government, which also has a moral obligation to help us to cope with the £211 million cost that Audit Scotland says is just around the corner as we head towards a hard Brexit.

Photo of Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

Universities Scotland says that digital poverty will reinforce disadvantage. We know about the delays in delivering the reaching 100 per cent—R100—programme in the Highlands and Islands, which is well behind schedule. If online learning is to be a feature of higher and further education, what can be done for those students in rural, remote and island areas with internet speeds that cannot cope with online lectures and learning?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

That important point has featured in all our conversations with the sector throughout the Covid-19 crisis during this remarkable shift to online learning. Many institutions—UHI, in particular, as it happens—were already there, but others had to shift quite quickly.

We are conscious that there are many people who, for financial, rurality or other reasons, are unable to have the same connectivity as their peers. That is why I announced in today’s statement the £5 million that we are providing to address such issues in further and higher education. Those funds will be targeted towards vulnerable families and some of the people whom Beatrice Wishart mentioned.

I have instigated conversations with telecommunication providers to see what we can do to get their support in providing free online access for learners in Scotland.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

Following the impact of Covid-19, Glasgow Kelvin College and others are up for the challenge of adapting apprenticeship provision to be flexible and responsive, and to include the possibility of pathway apprenticeships. Will the Scottish Government say more about the vital on-going role of colleges in that area? What assurances can the minister give that the changing landscape of apprenticeships will not impact on FE colleges, which rely on income from foundation and modern apprenticeships?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

As Bob Doris will know, as we move forward towards economic recovery, the Benny Higgins report and other reports have said that institutions across further and higher education, and our colleges in particular, will have a big role in reskilling, upskilling and developing short, sharp courses to help retrain the workforce, who may be looking for different employment opportunities, and to help businesses cope with the post-Covid-19 economy.

Our colleges will be at the heart of that, and the Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills, Jamie Hepburn, is taking forward much of that work directly with the colleges as we speak.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

How many fully funded places for Scottish students will be delivered from the £19 million that is predicted to come from next year’s EU student fees allocation? Can the cabinet secretary outline the role of universities in the jobs guarantee scheme?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Colleges and universities are likely to play a role in the jobs guarantee scheme, but it is early days, as we have just had the announcements very recently. With the colleges and universities, we are turning our minds to economic recovery and the role that they can play, as I said in my previous answer to Bob Doris.

As regards the number of Scottish places that would be funded by the £19 million that will be available as a result of not funding EU places, my comment is that funding university places is a complex matter and we cannot quickly work that out. It depends how many applications there are and how many places the universities decide to create with the money that is allocated to them by the Scottish Government. We allocate the money and they can decide how to use it across courses and across places. As I said in my statement, there will now be £19 million in the system that is available for Scottish places. The universities are expected to take up that offer, which will hopefully lead to more Scots going to university.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

A strong and flourishing higher and further education sector is vital for not only those studying at the institutions but our wider economic recovery from the pandemic. The cabinet secretary will be aware of the Institute for Fiscal Studies report that finds that 13 universities across the UK may be at risk of insolvency, particularly due to the loss of international students. What risk assessments and contingency planning are being undertaken in Scottish universities to cope with those pressures?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I assure the Parliament that the Scottish Funding Council is working closely with all our colleges and universities to ensure that they survive and get through this situation. The council will carry out the review that it has been asked to undertake regarding the future financing of the sector and its sustainability, and w e will wait and see what comes out of that debate.

The analysis from the Scottish Funding Council so far has said that, for this academic year, the Scottish universities face a potential loss of £72 million, and between £384 million and £651 million thereafter if there is a decline in the number of international students, as some people are predicting there might be.

We have to wait and see what happens, but we will stand by our universities and colleges.