University Funding (International Students)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 1st June 2022.

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Photo of Fulton MacGregor Fulton MacGregor Scottish National Party

7. To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to review and address any university funding gap, in light of reports of increasing numbers of international students being offered places, compared with Scottish-domiciled applicants. (S6O-01172)

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

International students and students from other parts of the United Kingdom are not eligible to access the funded places that have been protected for eligible Scottish and European Union students.

For 2022-23, we are providing over £1.1 billion to our universities to support their continued financial sustainability, overcome the challenges of Covid-19 pandemic and strengthen our economic recovery, including by supporting our young people to gain the skills and knowledge that they need to be successful.

Photo of Fulton MacGregor Fulton MacGregor Scottish National Party

Over the past couple of months, I have been contacted by several constituents who have been rejected from university courses despite having exceptional grades. They tell me that the feedback that they are getting is that it is due to a lack of funded places.

In one instance, a constituent from a local high school informed me that she had achieved six As and one B in her national 5 exams and in fifth year four As and one B. She was currently completing another two highers, as well as modules in law and mental health. She was also the school captain. Despite that, she found herself rejected for law at the universities of Strathclyde, Dundee and Edinburgh, and declined for law and business at the University of Edinburgh also.

Fortunately—there is good news—she did get another placement in the end, but there are similar stories. My concern is the message that such rejections of high-achieving students can send to other pupils in deprived areas, such as Coatbridge. I welcome the recent report from the commissioner for fair access saying that Scotland is setting the pace in the UK and that we are way ahead of the other nations when it comes to students from deprived areas getting into university, which the First Minister referred to earlier.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Ask your question, please, Mr MacGregor.

Photo of Fulton MacGregor Fulton MacGregor Scottish National Party

What more does the minister think that universities can do to further widen that access and ensure that all our young people have an equal chance?

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I am glad that, despite the challenges, Mr MacGregor’s constituent has got a place at university. Our institutions are highly regarded, and the selection process for places in the most sought-after courses can be extremely competitive.

To go back to Mr MacGregor’s original question, I should say that there should be no sense that Scottish students are being pushed out by others. In 2020-21, the number of Scottish students was at 37,520, which was 10 per cent up on the figure two years earlier. According to data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service covering 2020-21, of the total number of students who got a place at a Scottish university, 73.6 per cent were Scottish-domiciled students, which was up by nearly 2 per cent from two years before.

On the very important point about widening access, I highlight the recent report from the Scottish Funding Council on that, which shows that, in 2020-21, 16.7 per cent of Scottish full-time first degree entrants to Scottish universities were from the 20 per cent most deprived areas. That is hitting our target. Of course, yesterday’s report from the commissioner for fair access noted that

“Scotland continues to set the pace in terms of fair access to higher education among the UK nations.”

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We are running ahead of time, and I am keen to get in all the supplementary questions and the final question, but the questions and answers will need to be brief.

Photo of Pam Gosal Pam Gosal Conservative

With Universities Scotland highlighting funding cuts due to the spending review, can the minister guarantee that the current student numbers cap will be lifted further, allowing more Scottish students the university places that they deserve?

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

The member talks about a cap on places. Of course, we have to lay out a budget and, in doing so, we have to have a number of places at university—that is the reality. If, heaven forfend, the members on the Conservative benches were in government, they would have to do the same.

I did not hear from the member any word of welcome for the fact that we had a 10 per cent increase in the number of Scottish-domiciled students in a two-year period. Of course, those students are attending universities in Scotland without having to pay fees, unlike students elsewhere in the United Kingdom, who have to pay up to £27,750 for the privilege of attending university.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

With regard to international students, what is the status of Ukrainian students who are here as refugees and who wish to continue their study in Ukraine remotely but who are not being granted home status, unlike other Ukrainian students who take places at our universities?

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

That question is probably on the back of an email similar to one that I have received. I take that issue seriously. We have put in place an international students hardship fund so that students who are already studying here can benefit from that. However, I am aware of the cohort that the member is talking about, and we are looking at that issue actively.