Higher Education (Access)

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 26 March 2024.

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Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-12642, in the name of Graeme Dey, on widening access and equality of access to higher education. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak button.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

The debate provides us with an opportunity to reaffirm our collective commitment to widen access to university for people from our poorest communities, and so ensure that, no matter what their background might be, everyone in Scotland has the chance to reach their full potential. It is also an opportunity for us all to reflect on the considerable progress that has been made so far. Just as important is that we will, I hope, explore the work that we will have to undertake collectively—in the Government, universities and wider society—to complete that journey. Let me be clear from the outset that we intend to complete it.

Having met the previous interim target, we have now turned our attention to the next interim target for 2026 and the final target of having 20 per cent of entrants to higher education coming from our 20 per cent most deprived communities by 2030. We have done so in the knowledge that such opportunities are there. This year, places in the system that were available to domestic entrants went unfilled. Although we thank the sector for all its hard work so far, I ask it to reflect on whether there is anything more that it can do. If that requires action or assistance from the Government, we will gladly have that discussion. We recognise how challenging moving the situation on will be and that adjusted approaches will almost certainly be required.

I welcome Universities Scotland’s 40 faces campaign, which will allow us to hear the views of students and graduates. In a similar vein, I look forward to hearing members’ contributions to the debate, because, as always, I am happy to consider genuine and constructive solutions from anywhere.

I am pleased to commend to Parliament the commissioner for fair access’s annual report for 2024. I place on record my gratitude to Professor John McKendrick. Last week, I met him to discuss his report’s conclusions, and widening access more generally, including the progress that we have made so far and how we can make the further progress that is required. I broadly welcome the report’s recommendations. My officials will work with the commissioner and other interested parties to consider how we might progress them.

I will take a moment to reflect on the report’s finding that increasing the share of students from the most deprived areas has not led to fewer students progressing to higher education from less deprived areas. That suggestion has been made previously, both inside the chamber and outside it. However, as the commissioner states,

“at present, increasing the share of students from the most deprived areas has not led to fewer students progressing to higher education from those from less deprived areas. The number of entrants has increased for all Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) quintile cohorts since 2013-14.”

I am glad to see that that myth has been conclusively put to bed.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

The minister previously pointed out that there were some high-profile courses where there was a challenge. In particular, I am thinking of law courses at the University of Edinburgh, which is where the issue started 18 months ago.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

Mr Whitfield is right to cite that situation. As he will be aware, though, that was an isolated example. I think that the University of Edinburgh has recognised the errors that were made there.

Students from our poorest communities are not taking up spaces that would otherwise be reserved for someone else; they are there on merit. The latest statistics show that, in 2021-22, we again had a record number of students from deprived areas, which represents an increase of 80, numerically, on the previous year. That is a huge 41 per cent increase since the commission on widening access’s final report in March 2016. It is a considerable achievement. I express the Government’s gratitude to everyone who has played a role in making it happen: our universities, colleges and schools and, most importantly, the young people themselves. With 16.5 per cent of full-time first-degree entrants coming from deprived areas, we have once again achieved the commission’s interim target of 16 per cent by 2021.

In 2021-22, 19.1 per cent of all undergraduate higher education entrants at both universities and colleges were from the 20 per cent most deprived areas. That figure is even higher if we just consider entrants to full-time courses, more than a fifth of whom are from the most deprived areas. The gap between the 20 per cent most and least deprived areas in terms of positive initial destinations after leaving school is now at a record low. That is real progress—progress that I hope will be welcomed by colleagues on all sides of the chamber in their speeches today.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I want to make some progress if I may.

It is worth reflecting on some of the recent changes that will continue to drive the agenda. Since 2020-21, all universities have measured the academic achievements of learners from our most disadvantaged communities against access thresholds, rather than standard entry requirements. That ensures that those who have the potential to succeed in higher education will have that potential recognised. People with care experience who want to go to university are no longer deterred by debt. They can now access a non-refundable bursary of £9,000 each year, increasing to £11,400 in 2024-25. When they apply for a place at university, if they meet the new thresholds, the institution will guarantee them the offer of a place. The Government is determined to keep the Promise, and we will do everything in our power to ensure that care-experienced people have the same opportunity as their peers.

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

I agree with the minister that it is extremely important that we give equal access across all SIMD areas, and the progress is welcome. Is he not concerned that the income coming into universities is increasingly coming from abroad now? I heard that more than 80 per cent of the income of the University of Glasgow now comes from students from abroad, specifically from China.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

W e are aware of the reliance on international students, but I gently say to Mr Whittle that one of the biggest threats to our university sector—not just in Scotland but across the United Kingdom—is the policies of the UK Government on migration. That is where the biggest worry currently lies.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I am not going to give way; I want to make some progress.

We are not going to rest on our laurels. The widening access agenda is too important for that. I reiterate: I accept that kicking on from here presents a challenge, but it is a challenge that we intend to meet. We will have to do more faster to drive progress, to identify students who need support so that they can access the education that they deserve, and to give them the help that they need.

We are clear about the value of SIMD as a measure of deprivation, and the impact of the national SIMD targets can be seen in the progress to date. For that reason, I agree with the commissioner when he says that it is necessary to

“Retain SIMD as the central metric to indicate national progress in achieving fair access.”

However, our approach should not be to the exclusion of those who face similar barriers but who live in areas where their address is less likely to be classed as deprived. The access data short-life working group was established in 2023 to assess which other measures should be used. In its final report, the working group recommended that free school meals and the Scottish child payment should continue to be considered as possible individual-level widening access measures. Officials are considering how we can overcome data-sharing issues to introduce eligibility for free school meals as a measure of deprivation, and we are working with institutions in the north-east to pilot that. We will also continue to examine Scottish child payment data and school clothing grant data to see whether they identify students who may benefit from the widening access approach. I am happy to engage with anyone with additional ideas in that space.

I have to admit to being concerned by recent suggestions from elsewhere on the political landscape that, if implemented, would completely undermine the central tenet that access to higher education should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. As a Government and as a Parliament, the decision that we took to abolish tuition fees should be one of our proudest achievements. In recent weeks, senior front benchers from both Labour and the Conservatives have suggested the reintroduction of fees but, in my view, that is something to be firmly rejected. Whether those fees are up front, as they are in Conservative-run England and Labour-run Wales, or by the back door, as they were when Labour was in government in Scotland, this Government is clear that that would be completely unacceptable. Free tuition is vital to widening access and, under this Government, tuition fees will never be reintroduced in Scotland.

The Labour amendment, which I urge members to reject at decision time, calls for increased funding for the sector—as Labour members are perfectly entitled to do. Given that Labour has been against almost every revenue-raising measure that the Government has implemented, however, where would that money come from? There are two options. Either Labour would cut elsewhere in the budget, whether from the national health service, schools or social security—that would be a choice for Labour—or it would increase funding by bringing in some form of tuition fees, as its finance spokesperson suggested only a few weeks ago.

Since our policy was introduced, the number of first-time students in Scotland has increased by 31 per cent. The average level of student debt in Scotland is three times lower than it is south of the border, and record numbers of students from our poorest communities are going to university. We on these benches believe that it is worth defending that we will never allow tuition fees to be imposed in Scotland.

As I have said, we need to go further in the widening access agenda. We have to unlock the potential of all our young people. Not only is that the right thing to do, it is vital if our economy and our public services are to have the skills that are needed.

I look forward to hearing colleagues’ contribution on how we can continue to build on the progress that has been made.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the recent report by the Commissioner on Fair Access; welcomes the progress that has been made to widen access to university, with a 45% increase in students from the most deprived communities entering university since 2013-14; is grateful for the work of the higher education sector in achieving this success; agrees with the commissioner’s finding that increasing the share of students from the most deprived areas has not led to fewer students progressing to higher education from less deprived areas; reaffirms its commitment to widening access and to meeting the 2026 interim target and the 2030 target, which it agrees will require concerted effort from government and institutions to meet this challenge; agrees that it is vital that higher education continues to be based on the ability to learn rather than the ability to pay, and further agrees that undergraduate students in Scotland should not be expected to pay any form of tuition fees, whether up front or in the form of charges during their course or after graduation, such as graduate endowments or graduate taxes.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

I cannot imagine that anyone in the chamber would disagree that people who want to go to university as part of their life plan should be able to do so, regardless of means or circumstances. Aside from personal benefits, the consequences are social, economic and fair.

I welcome the tone of the minister’s contribution, particularly on working together, because it inexorably follows that we must constantly ask whether we are achieving that end and whether we can improve.

However, I have to say that, in the motion and in the remarks that we have just heard, the Government is in danger of revealing itself to be selective, dogmatic and dangerously siloed in its thinking. For example, it sets an arbitrary target that students from the 20 per cent most deprived communities will make up 20 per cent of entrants to higher education by 2030, but, as it does so often, it reveals that it has little idea of how to achieve that. The Government does not undertake meaningful reflection on what is working, what is not and, ultimately, what can be improved.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

In two seconds, minister.

Let us not forget that the fair access report says that progress has stalled and that the Scottish Government is not on track to meet its widening access targets. The minister is to be commended on his remarks that, as commentators including Professor Lindsay Paterson and Commissioner McKendrick have made clear, SIMD is something of a blunt instrument on which to rely.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I hope that, in not only the content but the tone of what I said, I recognised a number of the points that the member makes. I very much welcome contributions from across the chamber and further dialogue about what measures to look at, because, as I said in my opening speech, we are absolutely committed to exploring what else can be done.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

I recognise that, and I very much welcome the approach to the portfolio that the minister is taking. For far too long, there has been a very restrictive approach and an absence of whole-systems thinking. That is demonstrated by what is being done to the college sector. Professor McKendrick, the commissioner for fair access, highlighted just yesterday how important colleges are to the fair access agenda, describing them as offering people a gateway to university. He went on to describe the impact of what Neil Cowie of North East Scotland College told Parliament only a few weeks ago was a £32.7 million reduction in revenue funding as cuts being made to the number of places that will be available in the next academic year and courses being withdrawn. That is on top of the more than 120,000 places that have been lost since the Scottish National Party came to power.

When the principal of Dumfries and Galloway College describes the upcoming cuts as “devastating” to students from deprived areas and says that

“For those students who wish to progress on to ... higher education ... we cannot provide the same volume of opportunities”,

we should be very concerned indeed.

A similar lack of foresight is manifest in the decision to axe the flexible workforce development fund and failure to agree a budget that would allow for new funded modern apprenticeship places from 1 April 2024. I hope that the minister will pick up on that point in his closing remarks and tell us when that will be agreed.

That leads me to the fundamental issue. We do not widen access by blundering on with a cut of at least 1,200 places at universities. We do not widen access by having what amounts to an arbitrary cap on Scottish students. We do not widen access by failing to talk about part-time students, and the commissioner’s proposal to keep a primary focus on full-time undergraduates is set in a context in which 30 per cent of all Scotland-domiciled taught university enrolments in 2021 were part time.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

We really need to nail the myth about the 1,200 places. It has been explored multiple times in the Parliament, and it is still peddled by some. The 1,200 places that have been referred to were additional places that were introduced in 2021 to take account of the pandemic and the Scottish Qualifications Authority assessment process. The Government committed to funding those places for the duration of the students’ studies. That cohort will largely exit the system at the conclusion of this academic year, so the funding for those extra places—I stress “extra places”—will no longer be required.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance stood in the chamber and conceded that there were 1,200-plus fewer places available to students going forward. We can look at the official record on widening access. Shona Robison stood there and conceded the point.

On the widening access agenda, Universities Scotland has pointed out that the cost of living crisis has the biggest impact on those who were already most disadvantaged and that that is particularly acute for mature students with caring responsibilities, estranged students and students with care experience. The minister cannot come to the chamber and talk about widening access without mentioning the cuts of over £23 million to student support and tuition fee payments or the cut of almost £24 million to lifelong learning funding. I can understand why the minister would want to bury that news.

The real issue is the Government’s response to the picture. We all recognise that something is not working quite as it should be, and we all recognise that funding is tight, but we differ on the reasons that underlie that. However, it is a deeply irresponsible Government that, for ideological reasons, closes its mind to even discussing what we might do to address that. When we acknowledge that the average funding per Scottish student is over £2,000 lower than that for students in universities in England, the right response is surely to collaborate and discuss how we can work to improve that rather than get into such situations as when Professor Sir Peter Mathieson got absolutely pilloried when he gently suggested that, in the current system, talented students leave Scotland and alternative methods might be worthy of calm consideration.

All of us who bother to interrogate the data and the metrics underlying the outcomes can see that something is not working as well as it should be, whether that is widening access to the desired levels, properly funding the universities or ensuring that young people can take the direction that best suits them and fits their ambitions. What those from disadvantaged backgrounds, our universities and Scotland’s economy, outcomes and future need is for the Parliament to put the politics aside, find a way to end the underfunding of Scotland’s universities, and ensure that a world-leading university education can be offered to everyone who wants it, regardless of means and background. That is why I will move my amendment.

I move amendment S6M-12642.1, to leave out from “, and further” to end and insert:

“; acknowledges that a cap on university places for Scottish domiciled students exists due to the Scottish Government’s underfunding of Scotland’s institutions; condemns the decision to cut at least a further 1,200 university places for Scottish domiciled students next year, and calls on the Scottish Government to recognise that the current funding model is unsustainable, and that it needs to build a consensus around an optimum model that commands broad public support to end the underfunding of Scotland’s universities and ensures that world-leading university education can be offered to all who want it, regardless of means and background.”

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

It is a privilege to open this debate for Scottish Labour. I thank the minister for bringing it to the chamber, because widening access to education is close to my heart, and I believe that it is a priority that we all share.

It is therefore right that we take the opportunity to celebrate the progress that our institutions have made. They met the interim targets for entrants from students from disadvantaged backgrounds; there has been a rise in the number of young people entering university from care-experienced backgrounds; more disabled people are going to university; and more young people are progressing from further education into higher education.

However, we must also accept the reality. I know from conversations that I have had with institutions, students and staff how committed they all are to the cause of widening access, but, like me and my Labour colleagues, they are becoming increasingly concerned that progress is stalling and that the challenges that they face and that lie ahead will make regaining momentum ever more difficult.

The Scottish National Party Government has sought to use this discussion to pat itself on the back, but this is not a time for complacency. It talks about widening access and supporting higher education institutions, while signing off on a budget that cut £100 million from the sector and at least 1,200 places. The Government’s own analysis has warned that those cuts could have a direct impact on widening access. There are cuts to funding and cuts to places; there is an overreliance on cross-subsidy from international students; and institutions are facing impossible choices. That is this Government’s record. The president of NUS Scotland called it right when she said that, if education is this Government’s priority, it has

“a funny way of showing it.”

The Government’s actions are risking progress. We know—and students, staff, colleges and universities know—that the issue is not just about places and admissions; we need to support students on their entire education journey. There has long been a retention gap between the most affluent and least affluent students, but, worryingly, retention rates are beginning to fall again, in particular for those with widening access markers. Prospective students who are currently considering university need to know that they will get the support that they need so that they can emerge at the other end of their studies ready to contribute to society and move on to successful careers.

However, the impact of the past few years, with the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, has meant that, now more than ever, students require increased levels of support. The pressures of academic life, financial worries and isolation are taking a heavy toll on their wellbeing. NUS Scotland talks about those pressures in its “Broke Students, Broken System” report on the five pillars of education, and it is right—it is not just what happens in the classroom that matters, and we cannot forget that.

Against that backdrop, Scotland’s universities have been grappling with successive years of real-terms cuts from this Government, at a time when outside pressures necessitate more support for their students. The result is that vital support services are overstretched and underresourced. The number of students who request mental health support at university increased threefold between 2010 and 2021. While universities are doing their best to meet that challenge, they are being asked to do more with less, and that is having an impact on retention rates.

What we have is a sector that is held back by this Government, and a funding crisis that is not just isolated in universities, but which extends to colleges, too. It is a crisis that students and staff at colleges have been telling this Government about for years, but it has refused to listen.

I say to the Government today: listen to staff and students at universities and colleges, who are desperate for their sector to be saved.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

I will take two seconds to finish this bit.

Surely even this Government, if it will not listen to staff and students, as I do on picket lines across Scotland, cannot ignore Audit Scotland’s concern that balancing high-quality learning with the expected volume of delivery, all the while contributing to other Government priorities, is a monumental challenge.

I will take the minister’s intervention.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I could point to the increase in student support and so on, but let us cut to the chase. We are now almost four minutes into Labour’s opening speech, and we have had a long list of demands, but we are still waiting to hear how Labour would fund them—through the reintroduction of tuition fees, perhaps?

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

I thank the minister for his intervention. On his point about the increase in student support, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that there has been a 16 per cent reduction in student support over the past 10 years. On what Labour would do, I will come to that next in my speech.

My party and I are unwavering in our commitment to shattering the class, glass and stepped ceiling. We are dedicated to ensuring that our education and skills systems work in tandem and collaborate seamlessly to create opportunities for all, equipping our young people, regardless of their background, with the necessary tools to access the well-paid secure jobs of the future so that no one is held back by where they come from. We know that, in order to meet the ambition, we are in dire need of a sustainable tertiary education system.

Labour offers an approach to further and higher education that is different from what the current Government offers. We understand the value of the tertiary sector, and we refuse to stand idly by as our once world-leading education system faces managed decline. We need a Government that is focused on sustainable economic growth and ambition, not stagnation and settling. That is why, across the UK, Labour has laid out plans to bolster universities and has committed to investing 3 per cent of gross domestic product in research and development and establishing 10-year research deals to facilitate long-term planning.

We are building robust support frameworks to encourage successful spin-outs. Here in Scotland, we are determined to elevate standards in our schools and boost the number of students who progress to positive education, employment and training. We know how pivotal education that is based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay, is to ambition. Scottish Labour introduced free tuition, and it remains one of our proudest achievements from our time in government. We have reaffirmed that commitment time and again, and that position has not changed. We support the delivery of free tuition for Scottish students who attend Scottish universities.

In contrast, the current implementation by the Scottish Government is not working. An underfunded system lets down students, staff and institutions.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

I am afraid that I do not have time.

The only thing that prevents that from being the case is the tenacity of universities, not this Government. Universities are working day and night to do all that they can to fill funding gaps that this Government has created.

Scottish Labour stands united in our resolve to provide every student in Scotland with an equal chance of success. We will not rest until the doors of opportunity are wide open and the path to higher education is clear and unobstructed for all, regardless of background. The future of Scotland depends on the empowerment of young people through education, and we are committed to making that future bright, equitable and prosperous for all.

I move amendment S6M-12642.2, to insert at end:

“; notes the Scottish Government’s own Equality and Fairer Scotland Budget Statement accompanying the 2024-25 budget, which warns of ‘a significant risk that the reduction in the HE resource budget will increase competition for remaining university places, which could disadvantage learners from socio-economically disadvantaged areas with lower prior attainment’; understands that this funding crisis extends to the whole tertiary education sector, with Audit Scotland noting that it will be ‘difficult for colleges to balance delivering high-quality learning at the volume expected while contributing to other Scottish Government priorities’; calls on the Scottish Government to set out its plans to meet its commitment in the 2023-24 Programme for Government to lead development of a new post-16 education funding model, and believes that a sustainably funded tertiary education sector is crucial to the future of Scotland.”

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I advise members that there is no time in hand and that you will need to stick to your speaking allocation. I call Willie Rennie, who has up to four minutes.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

This is a rather sensitive subject for Liberal Democrats, but—just to be clear—I point out that we voted for the abolition of tuition fees in this Parliament, and we remain opposed to tuition fees.

The widening access debate goes much broader than the subject of tuition fees, and I thank the commissioner for his considered report. Progress has been made over the past few years, but it has stalled in the most recent period, as the minister has recognised. That is a concern because, if this country is to reach its economic potential, it needs to tap into the talents of everyone; we cannot afford to ignore the latent potential in our midst.

Where someone is born and how they are brought up impacts on the job that they secure, which has an impact on their income. That in turn impacts on the house in which they live and on the life chances of their children, which impacts on the economy. The cycle goes on and on.

The widening access targets have clearly had an impact in focusing the minds of everyone in the higher education sector on developing mechanisms that work to widen access without dropping the highly cherished standards that are the hallmark of Scottish higher education. That is the real test.

I have seen that in action at the University of the West of Scotland, which, as Paisley College of Technology—or Paisley tech, as it was known at the time—was my former institution. I was pleased to see that the UWS foundation academy is doing really interesting work in reaching out to schools in order to prepare students who are on the cusp as regards being able to get into higher education. The programme gives them the skills that they need to make a successful application so that they can enter those institutions. In 2022, I was pleased to see that the academy reached 1,500 pupils across 25 schools in west and central Scotland. That good solid work tries to attract people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

If I switch areas to my constituency of North East Fife, the University of St Andrews has done really impressive work. I have witnessed the university get students from disadvantaged backgrounds into the institution and how it ensures that they graduate. The university does not want its drop-out rate to increase but wants to maintain a very high standard, so it gives students direct education and wellbeing support.

At both ends of the spectrum, students are receiving direct, practical and pragmatic support that gets more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds through higher education. That is much more valuable than some of the other work that is under way or other debates that we have on the subject.

I can see that the sector is still learning which methods work best. That is why it is right for the commissioner to conduct a review to establish what works best. However, we also need to use better, more personalised information to target the right people.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

There is an implied criticism of the sector in what Willie Rennie has said, although I do not think that he meant it. Circumstances have changed. We have had a cost of living crisis and a pandemic, which have made things tougher. I do not think that the issue is the measures or the universities’ approach; I think that it is circumstance.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

There was no implied criticism at all. We are all learning as we go along to understand exactly what works best. In Paisley and St Andrews, we have seen what can work at the two ends of the spectrum. However, we need to look at more sophisticated data—including, perhaps, data on free school meals—and we will require to have a data-sharing agreement to make sure that that works.

Although it is right that higher education institutions play an important role in widening access, we also need to look at what happens before young people get to university. Previous ministers have made great play of the Scottish route for getting into higher education, but we must fund colleges.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You need to conclude.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

We also need to close the poverty-related attainment gap, and two-year-olds’ access to nursery education needs to improve quite dramatically.

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party

I welcome today’s debate, because the issue of widening access to higher education, especially providing equality and fair access, is hugely important to everybody in the chamber.

Much of the work and progress that we are discussing was born out of the 2016 report “A Blueprint for Fairness: the Final Report of the Commission on Widening Access”. The report was a response to the 2014-15 programme for government, in which the Scottish Government set out its ambition that every child, irrespective of their socioeconomic background, should have an equal chance of accessing higher education. As a result, the commission on widening access was established to advise ministers on the necessary steps to achieve that aim.

Although clear progress has been made since then, I agree with a number of my colleagues that we need to keep working tirelessly to do even more. The Scottish Funding Council noted that, according to its latest national report on widening access, 5,595 learners from the 20 per cent most deprived areas of Scotland began a full-time first degree course in 2021-22.

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party

I have very little time, so I ask the member to hurry up, please.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

I certainly will. How will a £107 million cut to the Scottish Funding Council’s budget improve the situation?

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party

The member should ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer down at Westminster.

The Scottish Funding Council noted that the figures confirmed that universities and colleges had once again met the commission on widening access’s interim target of 16 per cent of all Scotland-domiciled full-time first degree entrants being from the 20 per cent most deprived areas. The report also highlighted where we can do more, and I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to increase its efforts, in conjunction and partnership with higher education institutes, in working towards the next interim target of 18 per cent by 2026 and then achieving the target of 20 per cent by 2030.

In its briefing for today’s debate, Universities Scotland notes the need to take a more holistic approach. It suggests that the Parliament’s Education, Children and Young People Committee is ideally suited to take on that work, and I tend to agree.

The targets are achievable, but we will need to be innovative in our approach and provide further support to organisations whose contributions perhaps get overlooked but which are essential in providing the necessary support and the environment that our young people need, if they are to succeed. There are many such organisations, and I am sure that members will know of some great third sector groups or, indeed, individuals who are making a real difference in their local areas.

I apologise for focusing on only one such organisation for the moment. Only the other week, at one of the regular stalls in the Scottish Parliament, I had the pleasure of speaking to IntoUniversity. It aims to boost the educational chances of young people from the age of seven by providing centres that offer a welcoming home where they can realise their ambitions, achieve their academic potential, develop vital skills and gain experience of the world of work. It was a pleasure to meet people from that organisation, speak to some of the young people who had gained so much through their experience and learn about the organisation’s expansion plans and its existing centres, such as the one in Maryhill in Glasgow.

IntoUniversity has supported more than 50,000 students. Sixty-one per cent of its 2023 school leavers progressed to higher education, compared to only 28 per cent of students from similar backgrounds across the UK. As that organisation and others across Scotland grow, their success will grow, too, and they will make a huge contribution towards meeting our future aims. However, to achieve those, we need to bring those organisations’ contributions into the mix, analyse them—alongside other metrics—and consider how we can best recognise, support and enhance them. I would be happy for the committee to look at that and to hear the minister’s view on it in his summing-up speech.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

The main strategic challenge that the higher education sector faces is trying to balance the increasing economic and social demands from the Government with the academic excellence to which we are so accustomed. The pressures on universities are intense because of the financial constraints that they are under, and the percentage share of private sector funding that supports our universities is increasing while state funding is decreasing. As a result, the accountability lines are changing.

In Scotland, some years ago, we saw attempts by ministers to provide much more direction to our universities in promoting economic and industrial strategy. There was an attempt to merge the Scottish Funding Council, Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Skills Development Scotland, but that was defeated in the Scottish Parliament because it was seen to undermine the sector’s autonomy.

Understandably and rightly, social policy in the area has all been about widening access. No one can argue against the principle of widening access, since it enhances social mobility, promotes better job prospects, is inclusive of more vulnerable groups and can help to reduce poverty. It is essential that we look beyond just exam grades. Widening access should not, however, just be about specific rigid targets.

An example of that is the Government’s insistence that each of our 19 higher education institutions must take 20 per cent of their 2030 intake from the lowest quintile of the SIMD. For a start, the SIMD is by no means perfect, and such an arbitrary target can create a negative externality. To evidence that, in a report on fair access some years ago, Professor Peter Scott flagged up the central problem about widening access in the current model of funding when he said:

“the fixed cap inevitably raises concerns that the drive to recruit SIMD20 students may reduce opportunities for other students.”

That point was agreed by Audit Scotland.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I will not give way just now, if the minister does not mind.

In other words, unless university places increase, there will, by definition, be displacement of other students from more traditional university backgrounds. We know that that is happening.

I come on to the issue of what needs to happen. First, there has to be a radical improvement in school education. If there was not such a wide attainment gap between pupils from rich and poorer areas, the Scottish Government would not need to demand such rigid widening access targets. The reason why the Scottish Government will struggle to meet the artificial 2030 target is that, even with minimum entry requirements, there is no guarantee whatsoever of a broad enough pool of students with sufficiently strong attainment to merit a university place. That point comes from Universities Scotland, not from me.

The second thing that needs to happen—I would like to see this done on a wide cross-party basis—is a change in the current funding system, which is simply not sustainable financially. I believe that there is growing evidence of agreement across the political parties in the chamber that that is the case. It is very nice to say that we would like to offer entirely free education—I absolutely understand that. However, if we are going to do that, we have to change the current structure.

That takes us back to the key question about what a modern university is for. The debate is not just about how our universities maintain the traditional role of being custodians of academic knowledge and their research; it is about the extent to which they should be the agents of Government economic and social policy. The debate about funding and the structure is far too important to get it wrong. We have to agree on a cross-party basis.

Photo of Michelle Thomson Michelle Thomson Scottish National Party

As a relatively new member of the Education, Children and Young People Committee and, what is more, as a parliamentarian with a deep concern about the future, it is a great pleasure to participate in the debate and to welcome the report that the Scottish Government published yesterday. As we know, today’s motion focuses on widening access to higher education and, of course, references the recent report from the commissioner for fair access.

Taken together, those two reports clearly identify the progress that has been made in the development of lifelong learning in general and widening access in particular. However, we face significant challenges in the modern world, and high-quality education for all is central to our success.

Twenty-three years ago, the then Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee, under the convenership of Alex Neil, launched a major and what proved to be hugely influential inquiry into lifelong learning, echoes of which are reflected in yesterday’s report. The challenges that we face today—not least the impact of a global pandemic, Brexit and artificial intelligence, for example—could not be foreseen then but are key issues, and students are at the centre of them.

Last month, the National Union of Students Scotland published a report that detailed concerns that students face today. They include accessing affordable student accommodation and the cost of living, notwithstanding free tuition and grants. Such are the stresses that there are concerns about how the wider economic environment compromises the education experience and can lead to mental health challenges. We have to take those concerns seriously as well.

Last year, Sir Anton Muscatelli described in an essay the costs that Adam Smith faced when he was a student in the early 18th century:

“When Smith was a student himself he probably lived in University accommodation which cost around £1 per year, he would have subsisted on around £5 per year and paid course fees of £3, 10s. All in amounting to £10 per annum—around £3,000 in today’s money.”

Real-terms inflation has been huge since then, not least in accommodation costs, and students face a significant economic burden. Despite those economic challenges, we need to find ways of investing more in our higher education system, not only to keep on widening access but because, as Sir Anton further argues,

“We need a productive and efficient workforce to drive GDP, but in doing so we mustn’t leave behind those marginalised groups in our society. In economics, there is evidence that labour productivity, and thus overall output, could be improved by increasing worker wellbeing. Much of this relates to the need for a workforce that is informed and equipped with all the necessary skills, as well as the opportunity to build on these skills and learn throughout their working life.”

Society benefits from a highly educated population. The well educated are more likely to participate in the democratic life of our nation and to be more resistant to conspiracy theories and some of the madness that, all too often, seems to afflict our modern society. In that respect, we must strive to ensure continued breadth of access for all. I support the Government’s endeavours in that regard.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

It is, as always, a pleasure to follow Michelle Thomson, who articulates well the environment that our higher education finds itself in and, in particular, the challenges of accommodation, mental health and financial support.

Higher education is a broad range of vocational and academic qualifications ranging from higher national certificates and higher national diplomas to foundation courses and undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate qualifications. It is an enormous environment. It is welcome to have a debate—for which the Scottish Government well prepared the intervention on Pam Duncan-Glancy—that is also a good opportunity to discuss the needs that exist.

I found Bill Kidd’s speech interesting. When we get into figures, it is fascinating to see that progress towards the next target from the commission for widening access has, in effect, stalled, as the percentage of entrants from deprived backgrounds fell from 16.7 to 16.5 per cent this year. It is important to note that, when we bandy figures about—Pam Duncan-Glancy called it the Scottish Government patting itself on the back—we do a disservice not only to our students who are currently in higher education but to all those who aspire to higher education, irrespective of where they come from.

It is worth the Scottish Government noting its statement in the “Scottish Budget 2024 to 2025: equality and fairer Scotland statement”:

“There is a significant risk that the reduction in the HE resource budget will increase competition for remaining university places, which could disadvantage learners from socio-economically disadvantaged areas with lower prior attainment.”

That is important because, as a number of members have said, in many ways, we all want the same thing; the question is how we journey towards that.

I welcome the debate, because it allows me an opportunity to mention, as Willie Rennie did, the University of the West of Scotland’s good outreach work and Heriot-Watt University. It also allows me to talk about the East Lothian Educational Trust, which provides grants and lump-sum payments by way of a scholarship to students who are unable to afford some of the day-to-day requirements of being a student.

I also want to talk about the Lothians equal access programme for schools—LEAPS, as it is known—which goes back to 1996, when it identified the challenge of young people going through education in certain high schools being at a massive disadvantage in not having any of the strategies that they needed to get themselves to university. The LEAPS widening participation programme encourages and advises students from those underrepresented classes, and it works with people across south-east Scotland to support their aspirations, starting that work in late primary school and continuing it through high school so that they can achieve them. That is important, because young people will achieve success only if they see success and identify with it. It is a powerful programme, and I recommend it to the minister simply as something that takes the arguments from what we might redact them to in the chamber out into other areas.

My final point follows on from Brian Whittle’s intervention on the minister. I might not expect a response, but we need to take cognisance of the comments of Mr Stewart McDonald, the SNP MP, on the risks of China to our economic models. He said that universities,

“particularly in Scotland, are massively overdependent on money that comes from the Chinese state.”

We should heed that warning. We should not scream and shout about it—we should consider it properly—but we should engage, as I know the minister will in his convening capacity, to sort that out.

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

We are all aware of the difference that fair access to higher education can make to our personal lives and stories. Although I did not benefit from free tuition, because I did my undergraduate degree in England and did not receive funding for my postgraduate qualification, my parents would not have been able to use social mobility to give decades to the NHS and small business if it had not been for fair access to education and higher education.

As an MSP, I think of all the times in the past eight years when constituents have sat in front of me and expressed how important free and fair access to higher education has been to their lives. It is a public good—the ability to learn, not the ability to pay—and it has made us a more confident nation in our 25th year of devolution.

I therefore welcome the statistics from the Commissioner for Fair Access that show an increase in the number of deprived students who are entering universities and how that has not come at the expense of students from more affluent areas. The balance is being achieved and the social contract is being upheld. That is good progress.

How do we build on that? In the time remaining to me, I will talk about three areas that I am sure the Government is considering, and I will be interested to hear the minister’s thoughts on them. First, tuition fees are not the only consideration when it comes to the affordability of university. The housing crisis in Edinburgh is real and my constituents are facing it. I am interested to know how the minister is collaborating with housing ministers to make a difference for students who are struggling to find fair and affordable accommodation.

I also highlight the fact that the Scottish Government’s carer support payment, which has begun to replace carers assistance, will be available to carers who are in full-time higher education. That is distinct from the UK benefit, and I was proud to play a part in that happening. For a small number of people, that will make a meaningful difference. Good work is being done, but there is more to do when it comes to the wider questions of affordability.

The second area that I want to raise is the future of the workforce. The current system is good, but it is not perfect. This morning, the Scottish Government commendably announced a record number of junior doctors taking up posts, but the British Medical Association highlighted that, unfortunately, many professionals in medicine and in other areas leave Scotland. It seems to me unfair that the Scottish state is increasingly paying for the workforces of other countries. I wonder whether we need to look at a mechanism whereby, if an individual is away for more than five years, they should pay back half of their fees. We need to consider that growing issue as a challenge. It is important not just for education but for the workforce more generally.

On international issues, questions about the sustainability of higher education have rightly been raised by members across the chamber. The University of Edinburgh is approximately 70 per cent reliant on foreign fees, and much of that money comes from China. China is a great place—I taught conversational English there for three months—but we do not know what the geopolitical situation ahead might be. Such vulnerability, not just in relation to higher education but, more widely, in relation to our economy and its engagement with China, concerns me.

We have made good progress, but let us stay focused on the challenges ahead, be collaborative and be calm, as others have rightly emphasised.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

Like my colleagues,

I thank the commissioner for his work on the report.

I will start by celebrating the progress that has been made. There are more students than ever from disadvantaged backgrounds at our universities, both as an absolute number and as a share of the overall student population. That is a remarkable achievement. The interim targets that have been set have been met up until now, and they have often been met early, with the 16 per cent target achieved two years early. I will come on to the challenges in a moment, but we should take some time to be proud of that. That is certainly not the case in every comparable nation.

A lack of access to higher education hurts everybody. Think of the countless world-class surgeons, engineers and lawyers who have been lost to society. The contribution that they could have made has been lost because a whole class of people faces so many additional barriers to accessing higher education. So many people have never had their potential realised. Education, including higher education, benefits the individual and our society as a whole. That is a key principle behind the policy of free tuition that the Scottish Green Party, like other parties, supports.

I want to give particular credit to the college and university sectors for the significant improvements that they have made in the matriculation process over recent years. Colleges exist not just as a stepping stone to universities but are transformational places in their own right, although they are a key route to university for those who wish to access it.

I am frustrated by the disruption that is being faced in colleges because of what is now the annual tradition of nationwide industrial action in the sector. The cycle must be broken for the sake of all students. It is a huge challenge for the minister, because there is a need for reform based on the lessons learned report. However, I appreciate the challenge for the Government in not being the employer in the situation. That said, colleges are public bodies that are, ultimately, directed by the Government.

I urge my friends on the union side of the negotiations to reconsider their proposals for an independent chair. Following recent redundancy processes at City of Glasgow College, the unions have articulated to me the benefits that they found when they engaged with the Glasgow Colleges’ Regional Board, which, in essence, is a third party in the dispute but was able to help to resolve the dispute.

However, much bigger changes are required from college management. Many of the problems at College Employers Scotland can be traced back to a few individual colleges—in some cases, just one college—so there is a need for significant governance reforms, which I believe will have a knock-on effect on widening access, given the role that colleges play.

There are huge industrial relations challenges in the university sector, too, but I will try to stick to those that relate to widening access. I congratulate the University and College Union branch at the University of Aberdeen for saving the 26 lecturing posts in its languages department. Languages is one of the many areas in which there is a huge disparity in access.

I will return to colleges in the limited time that I have left. There is a key widening access point to address through the financial challenges that colleges face. There is no value in just making statements about the need to fund them more without explaining where the money should come from. We must look seriously at increased private sector funding for our colleges, although I am not talking about private sector control. It is really important that colleges are public bodies; indeed, they welcome the additional direction that they have received from the Government in recent months.

Nevertheless, it is fair that companies that will profit as a result of having a workforce with the right skills should contribute towards their workers gaining those skills. In the absence of a coherent, devolved set of powers over business taxation, that would be an effective way to ensure that the private sector pays its fair share. Many businesses are willing to do so. They are keen to pay for their workers to receive the skills development that they need. I would welcome the minister commenting on that when summing up and on how we can strike a balance in having private sector contributions without colleges simply being seen as a way to produce efficient units of labour. That is key to the widening access debate for universities.

The number of lives transformed by access to university where that simply would not have been the case before we embarked on this process is unquantifiable, as is the contribution made to society as a whole. We can all be proud of the journey that we have made so far, and, if we are a bit braver, of what we can still achieve in the years to come.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I am pleased to follow Ross Greer and begin on a note of consensus with him. I absolutely believe that education and training transform the lives of everyone who embraces them and I hope that that fundamental value is shared by everyone in this chamber. I also remind him that businesses contribute to the cost of their apprentices and of others who receive training, however that training is delivered.

Ben Macpherson struck the right note, as he often does—I say that as a compliment to him—when he called on us all to collaborate. I very much hope that we can have an ideology-free zone when we talk about education in this Parliament and that we will not allow either/or scenarios to paint us into different corners. Instead, I hope that we will work together, in the spirit of collaboration that Ben Macpherson recommends and that I support.

I hate to do this, because it singles out a colleague when, in the famous words of Bruce Forsyth, all my colleagues are my favourites—

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I am surprised to see the cabinet secretary quibbling with a mention of Bruce Forsyth in the chamber.

Liz Smith gave a masterly speech.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

She did do well, because she spelled out with great eloquence the argument from this side of the chamber about the need for us to embrace pragmatism and to take the collaborative approach that is vital for the future of our country and its people.

I restate that we must get educational investment right and we must give every young person in Scotland the opportunity that is equal to their ambition, talent and work ethic. There should be no descriptor that sees one avenue, approach or post-school route as a high road and another as a low road. There is a danger that this very debate might produce that impression. I see the minister nodding and I think that he agrees with the idea that we should have a disparity-free set of choices for our young people. That is not currently happening, as I think that we all know.

Although I completely endorse and embrace the whole concept of the Scottish credit and qualifications framework, it is vitally important that every young person gets an equal level of support along that pathway, which is currently not happening.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I assure Stephen Kerr that that approach of parity of esteem will underpin the work that we are doing to reform the careers service, so that the message to young people is that there is no lesser path.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I take that assurance on the basis that it is given by this particular minister, who I know is sincere and passionate about his portfolio.

However, I say gently to him that young people are not getting an equal opportunity under this SNP Government and I think that he knows that.

There have been references to college funding during the debate. The maintenance backlog alone accounts for more than £300 million-worth of work. What does that say to our young people who aspire to go to college? There are also striking parallels between colleges and the apprenticeship sector. I can see that I am running out of time and want to respect the four-minute limit. There are many things I want to say—I probably should not have laboured the idea of Bruce Forsyth.

I have one suggestion for the minister. Can we change the name of the graduate apprenticeship and call it a “degree apprenticeship”, which far better describes the opportunity for our young people. They do not have to be graduates to be on the apprenticeship scheme, but they will get a degree. That is a significant descriptor. With the time that I have, I have one ask of Graeme Dey, which is that he should give that suggestion serious consideration because of the importance of creating the equality of opportunity that we all want for Scotland‘s young people.

Photo of Baroness Katy Clark Baroness Katy Clark Labour

I welcome this debate. It is clear that a huge amount of work is being carried out in some higher education institutions, such as the University of the West of Scotland, to widen access to students from non-traditional backgrounds. There is no doubt that there has been a significant widening of access to higher education over recent decades across the UK, with large increases in the number of people who are able to attend university. However, there is also a significant class divide in education, with large numbers of working-class young people attending further education institutions. Of course, we hope that many of them will progress into higher education, so some of the points that have been made in relation to further education are very relevant to this debate.

We have to be honest about the position that we are in. The higher education sector in Scotland is facing significant challenges, with higher education providers receiving 23 per cent less funding per student than institutions in England, and higher education funding having fallen by 19 per cent in real terms per student over the past decade. It is set to be cut again in the coming year.

As I said, although this debate is about higher education, the funding of the further education sector, which has historically been underfunded and has not had parity of esteem or indeed funding, is also a significant issue. Audit Scotland says that funding for colleges fell by 8.5 per cent in real terms between 2021-22 and 2023-24. We repeatedly hear that the further education sector in Scotland is in crisis, that industrial relations are very poor and, as other members have said, that there is a maintenance backlog of £321 million. Those cuts to both further and higher education have taken place while the attainment gaps between primary school pupils from the most and least deprived areas of Scotland have remained stubbornly high, with gaps of 20.5 per cent in literacy and 17 per cent in numeracy. We have to consider all of that when we look at the issues of widening access.

The commission on widening access reported in 2016 on steps to achieve equality in access to university for those from Scotland’s most and least deprived backgrounds. The most recent target, which was 16 per cent, was achieved. However, there is concern that progress towards the next target, which is 18 per cent by 2026, has stalled. I understand that, last year, the share of entrants from the most deprived quintile fell from 16.7 per cent to 16.5 per cent. That was a small difference, but in the wrong direction.

As the minister said, however, the current commissioner for fair access has said that there is no evidence that the fair access agenda has prevented young people from affluent areas from going to university, suggesting that access has been a problem only in relation to certain courses. That is an important point and one that needs to be made in the chamber, given the attacks on that policy.

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance confirmed recently that at least 1,200 funded university places are to be cut. In this debate, it is appropriate that we think about how all those wider issues are going to impact on the number of young people from non-traditional backgrounds who go into our education system. I am pleased that there is a cross-party consensus that fair access is something that we wish to deliver.

Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

I am delighted that the recent report by the commissioner for fair access highlights a 45 per cent increase in students from the most deprived communities entering university since 2013-14. That is so welcome, and it highlights the fact that the SNP and the Greens are the only parties that can be trusted not to put a price on education. Access to university should always be based on the ability to learn and not the ability to pay.

In the newly published paper in our “Building a New Scotland” series, we include a proposal to enshrine the Government’s policy on free tuition in the permanent constitution of an independent Scotland. The paper also sets out how new powers could be used to

“make the conditions and foundations for learning even stronger, so that every young person has the best chance possible of succeeding at school and in post-school education.”

We should all have the opportunity to continue learning throughout our lives.

Poverty contributes to a lack of attainment. In an independent Scotland, with full powers over employment and social security, we could tackle child poverty and other inequalities. When I sat on the children’s panel in the east end of Glasgow, 15 years ago, a social worker told me that their measure of attainment was to get a child from a severely deprived area to go to school every day. Poverty is cruel, divisive and disempowering. With independence and the full incorporation into Scots law of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, we could ensure that children’s rights were upheld, protected and respected.

The facts speak for themselves. Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have repeatedly broken their promises on tuition fees. Those fees are spiralling. They were tripled to £9,000 a year by the Lib Dem-Conservative coalition and in 2016 were raised again to £9,250 per year. I am lucky in that my children and nieces and nephews have all had the chance to go to university. The eye-watering sum that my family would have had to pay had we not lived in Scotland under an SNP Government honestly does not bear thinking about.

In Scotland, we have world-renowned universities, excellent colleges and—despite what some would have us believe—outstanding schools and teachers up and down the country. Over the past few days, I have visited two of those schools—Lenzie academy and St Ninian’s high school in Kirkintilloch—to present them with awards. As ever, I was amazed at the ethos and achievement of our teachers and pupils. The pupils come from every background, and each of them is equally deserving of going on to higher education.

Scottish Labour’s hypocrisy on supporting students is pretty staggering. It claims to remain committed to supporting free tuition but, yet again, refuses to hold Keir Starmer to account for his flip-flopping on the matter. I hope that Pam Duncan-Glancy will stay true to the commitment that she made in her contribution. It is getting harder to distinguish between Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives when it comes to education policy, be that on graduate endowment fees or new formulas.

Interestingly, the sixth annual report of the commissioner for fair access shows that the increase in the number of deprived students entering universities has not come at the expense of students from more affluent areas. The SNP is committed to ensuring that a wide range of support opportunities is available for students from all backgrounds as they pursue their educational careers in Scotland.

I am very proud that unaccompanied children who are asylum seekers, as well as the children of asylum seekers, are entitled to free tuition in Scotland. All of Scotland’s young people should have the same opportunities to progress in life. High-quality learning and teaching are crucial to disrupting the impact of poverty in our education system. All of us will agree on that, but only the SNP can commit clearly to the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.

Photo of Jackie Dunbar Jackie Dunbar Scottish National Party

Long before Aberdeen established itself as an energy capital, it was known as a seat of learning. The city that I represent is home to one of Scotland’s four ancient universities—the University of Aberdeen—and has been home to a university for more than 500 years. For most of that time, it has been home to two universities. Today, we have the University of Aberdeen and the Robert Gordon University; for about a quarter of a millennium, we had King’s College and Marischal College, until those merged in 1860. In fact, for a time, Aberdeen had as many universities as the whole of England had; academia has always been important to the city that I represent.

In my constituency of Aberdeen Donside lie some of the most deprived communities in Scotland. Access to university can make a world of difference to the young folk who grow up there. The community that I live in is one of those less well-off places. Often, the bairns were asked what they wanted to do after school. I have heard the question being worded differently in better-off areas and in private schools—there, it is, “What are you going to study at university?” or suchlike, all of which carries the expectation that the young person will go to university. However, for those in the poorer areas, there needed to be encouragement and support, because far too many thought that university was not for them.

I remember when up-front tuition fees were introduced in Scotland and were later replaced with back-door tuition fees. They put up a barrier to education that left many from less affluent backgrounds questioning whether a university education was worth the cost. It meant that young folk were making decisions about going to university based on their ability to pay rather than their ability to learn.

I am proud that the SNP Government abolished back-door tuition fees and that it has committed to keeping universities free. At the time, the commitment was attacked as a handout to well-off households. However, with a 45 per cent increase in 10 years in the number of students from the most deprived communities entering university, it has been an investment in building a more equal, fairer Scotland.

As I mentioned, academia helped Aberdeen to establish itself on the world stage. Let me focus on how UK Government policies are starting to cut those universities off from the world and how that hinders their ability to close the attainment gap. The number of students from across the EU coming to Aberdeen has fallen dramatically since Brexit. That was offset somewhat for a time by students coming from the rest of the world. However, immigration policy has changed again to stop folk bringing their dependants. Many students are choosing not to study here, rather than being separated from their support networks or from their children. The overall message is horrible—that the UK, including Scotland and Scotland’s universities, is closed to the world.

The resulting fall in student numbers means that courses are ceasing to be viable, and we are starting to see some—such as modern languages at the University of Aberdeen—no longer being offered as stand-alone degrees. That means less choice and fewer chances for young folk in some of our most deprived communities, including those that I represent. It is not stopping the boats; it is stopping young folk succeeding in life. Let us commit to keeping Scotland tuition fee free. Let us reopen our universities to the world again, and let us ensure that those universities are a gateway to the world for the young folk who are growing up in some of Scotland’s poorest communities.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to wind-up speeches.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

I am glad that we have had the time this afternoon to reflect on the success of the sector, to thank the commissioner for his work—as my colleague Willie Rennie and others did—and to look at the challenges that lie ahead.

I went to university in 2000, because I had a council that had a budget to support me to get there; I had a Government that was bringing in the education part of the Disability Discrimination Act 1998, which looked to widen opportunities for higher education; and I had institutions that were fully supported to make that happen. I will never forget the opportunity that education and widening access brought me and my family. I was the first person in my family to go to into higher education, and I will never forget that. That is why it saddens me so much to hear the serious concerns that are being raised across the chamber about what is happening in further and higher education today, and the Government is not really taking cognisance of them.

The gains that we have made—many of which I talked about in my earlier speech—are a testament to our institutions, which have embraced their duty to open up education and tear down barriers that historically allowed background, not ambition, to determine them. As Ross Greer noted, and as I highlighted earlier, that increased articulation from college to university. I am pleased that the minister commented positively on parity of esteem in that regard. My colleague Bill Kidd noted a great local example of widening access: the IntoUniversity programme in Govan and Maryhill in my region, Glasgow, which is a project that he cares passionately about.

It was also good to hear that the breadth of the debate today included schools, because they are crucial, as Liz Smith, Rona Mackay, Katy Clark and others mentioned, and I agree, which is why Glasgow City Council’s proposed cuts to education—it proposes to cut 450 teachers and the MCR Pathways mentoring scheme—are of huge concern to me. They have come as a bitter blow to pupils, staff and volunteers, and I have been inundated with complaints from parents, pupils, teachers and mentors alike.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

Does Ms Duncan-Glancy accept that there have not yet been cuts to the MCR Pathways mentoring scheme and that a review is going on?

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

T hat is not how the situation is being characterised by the volunteers, who know that they are unlikely to be supported. I am also quite concerned that John Mason previously made reference to teachers in Glasgow being a “luxury”. I completely disassociate myself from that statement, and I urge the member to reconsider it.

I know that the cabinet secretary cares about the issue. Parents and carers say that the constant passing of the buck does not give them comfort while their children suffer. They want ministers to continue do their job. If such decisions are not for ministers, they ask that they are part of the solution. I hope that the cabinet secretary will respond by taking action to step in and save such services, because we need to have exactly that form of support in schools if we are to be able to widen access.

Although schools, universities, staff and students have worked tirelessly on their commitment to widening access, the Government has become complacent, disregarded warnings and now put progress in jeopardy. I am afraid that during the debate I have not heard much to allay those fears.

Data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service has shown that fewer people from disadvantaged backgrounds had applications accepted in 2023 than in 2022. Ten years of successive real-terms cuts have taken a toll on the sector. Student support is more important than ever, but universities and colleges are scrambling to provide that, because they do not have the resources to meet the demand. The risk has been further exacerbated by cuts to cost-of-living support for the poorest students. I can remember a time when this Government said that it would dump student debt; instead, student debt has doubled. As I said earlier, support has declined by 16 per cent over the past decade.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

As happened in Ms Duncan-Glancy’s opening remarks, we have heard a long list of demands from Scottish Labour members but no indication of how they would meet the costs associated with those demands.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

I set out our plans in my earlier contribution. I suggest, too, that Scottish Labour would grow the economy in a way that the Government has failed to do over the 17 years that it has been in power.

I remind the SNP that, without change to its approach, there is a risk that the hard work that is put into expanding opportunities through widening access will be undermined. As members including Katy Clark, Stephen Kerr, Michelle Thomson and others have noted, that must include colleges. We need a new approach that enables the entire sector not just to survive but to thrive and expand. Members across the chamber—including, as always, Ben Macpherson—have made interesting suggestions on that.

Let me say again that Scottish Labour introduced free tuition. We are proud of that, but it saddens me to watch that principle of education, which is based on ability to learn and not ability to pay, being eroded. The SNP Government’s underfunding has meant fewer places for students, threats to the quality of education for those who do get places, and a system that is struggling to offer the support and resources that our young people need to thrive on their academic journeys. We cannot accept that.

I will close by saying that the Government must now set out its plan to meet the commitment, made in its 2023 programme for government, to lead the development of a post-16 education funding model. The education sector and the Scottish public deserve a world-class tertiary education system, and they need their Government to step up to the challenge and set out its plans to do that. If it accepts that challenge, Scottish Labour will support it on the way.

Photo of Roz McCall Roz McCall Conservative

I am pleased to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives. I appreciate the consensual tone of the debate, which the minister said he hoped for. For the most part, that is what we have had.

I highlight an important point that my colleague Liz Smith made in her characteristically thorough speech. All members across the chamber are, rightly, committed to the principle of widening access to higher education. It enhances social mobility, promotes better job prospects and is a crucial factor in reducing poverty in our most vulnerable communities. However, the Scottish Government’s insistence on meeting arbitrary targets, such as the SIMD measurement, which I will come to later and which was commented on earlier, is simply failing our young people.

The uncomfortable fact for the cabinet secretary and the minister is that, even according to the Government’s own targets, they are failing. Professor McKendrick, who is the man tasked with championing achieving an increase in university students from Scotland’s most deprived areas, says that things really have to change.

Progress towards widening access is stalled, as is progress towards interim targets—that comes from the report that we are debating this afternoon. That is evidence that, despite some progress, the Scottish Government is not doing enough to widen access to university at all levels, including among the most deprived students. I agree with my colleague Liz Smith that raising attainment across secondary education will be instrumental in getting things back on track.

The report highlights a lack of support for our further education sector, which is the springboard for some students to go on to attend a higher education institution. Continued cuts by the SNP Government to college places and to funding over the past 17 years are having an impact on the sector’s ability to enable students to reach university. It is no surprise that four of Scotland’s colleges are facing significant cash-flow issues.

Appearing before the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit Committee, Scottish Funding Council chief executive Karen Watt spoke of the deteriorating financial situation that colleges are faced with, as well as describing a perfect storm of inconsistent funding and rising costs. The sad fact is that the SNP’s funding model has starved universities and colleges of resources, forcing them to rely far too heavily on international students. It is imperative that we recognise that the cap on Scottish students means that many intelligent, hard-working, diligent young people will be denied access to higher education.

I will make a couple of comments on some of the contributions made in the debate. A lot of them were excellent, but I have time for only a couple.

I welcome the minister’s contribution, especially his warm words on further education and higher education for care-experienced young people. Unfortunately, the number of young people attending is reducing—I will highlight that later. I was pleased to hear from the minister and from Willie Rennie about using measures other than SIMD in ensuring access to further education. Ben Macpherson, Brian Whittle and Martin Whitfield all mentioned the reliance on China, which I think should be understood and recognised. Willie Rennie and Katy Clark made contributions on nursery places for two-year-olds and primary places.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

Does the member agree that the issues regarding China and Scottish universities are not just financial? They are also about freedom of academic expression, and concerns have been raised by Scotland’s Hong Konger community in particular, who feel that students who have come to Scotland have been observed and surveilled by the Chinese state, even while they are in cities such as Edinburgh.

Photo of Roz McCall Roz McCall Conservative

I thank Ross Greer very much for the intervention; I cannot disagree with that.

Going back to nursery places and primary school education, it is important that there is a foundation in early years, as we reap that reward in further education. I again highlight the need for joined-up thinking on early-years childcare. We could use private nurseries to provide on-site childcare on campus, which would help to widen access, especially for parents.

I agree whole-heartedly with my colleague Liam Kerr. He was right to raise the issue of the SNP’s cap on students places, which is having the effect of restricting access to Scottish universities for some of our brightest students. I am sure that I am not the only MSP who has had emails from frustrated school leavers at different pinch points throughout the scholastic year, highlighting the inequality of the process.

If we are serious about widening access to higher education for all our students, it cannot be right that we arbitrarily limit the ability of our brightest and best to attend university here at home, in Scotland. We should be keeping home-grown talent and allowing learners to progress through our brilliant colleges and universities as they move on to finding fulfilling and prosperous careers in a growing Scottish economy—they should certainly not be hindered when they are right out of the school gate.

That brings me on to the Scottish Government’s insistence on SIMD. I note that the minister said that the Government is considering different measures. It is important to realise that SIMD is already controversial when it comes to the higher education sector, with the argument being made that area measures are too detached from individual circumstances and that, in particular, SIMD is not good at picking up deprivation in rural areas. I have a lot of sympathy with that point, and I have raised it with the minister in the past. It cannot be right that students with equivalent grades and comparable extracurricular activities who attend the same school and cope with the same disadvantages find themselves facing such polarising outcomes—one being accepted and the other rejected—when they live only a few streets apart.

Surely a more person-centred measure for widening access, such as eligibility for free school meals, which has already been highlighted, would be appropriate. That is what Universities Scotland suggests, and I think that it would be a better approach.

My final point before I conclude is that the report highlights that

“The relative share of care-experienced entrants from SIMD20 areas fell between 2020-21 and 2021-22 (from 32% to 26.5%)”,

which is a fall from a third to a quarter. More must be done, as stalling and falling rates are simply not acceptable.

In conclusion, although I accept that steps have been taken, and that should be recognised, it is foolhardy to ignore warning signs. If we do not have a grown-up cross-party debate on the financial limitations that currently exist without petty politicking, it is not only our brilliant further and higher education institutions that will suffer—it is Scotland’s children.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I thank colleagues from across the chamber for their contributions and for some of the points that they have raised. I will, for example, consider Stephen Kerr’s suggestion on renaming the graduate apprenticeship in the spirit that it was offered, although I admit to being thrown by his very reasonable tone this afternoon. I reiterate that, if members have thoughts on this matter, I am happy to discuss positive and constructive suggestions, no matter where they come from.

As Universities Scotland called for in its debate briefing, a united and renewed energy from all parties in support of this goal would be helpful at this point in the journey. I think that we have, notwithstanding some of the differences that have been aired in the debate, met that ask and restated our collective commitment to the widening access agenda. The tone of the debate has been constructive.

A number of members raised issues during the afternoon that I am afraid time will not allow me to respond to. Liam Kerr asked when confirmation of the apprenticeship budget will come—imminently is the answer. However, I have to note an inaccuracy in his contribution, and he was not the only one to make it, so I want to pick up on it. Liam Kerr, for whom I have enormous respect, claimed that the number of Scottish students going to English providers is increasing. According to UCAS data—I know that he likes to interrogate data—the number of such individuals is at its lowest since 2006.

Another highly respected member, Liz Smith, made an excellent contribution. I disagree with what she said, but it was an excellent contribution. She asserted, and what she said was echoed by Roz McCall, that Scots are missing out on places at universities because of this agenda, but the commissioner was clear that that is not the case. Indeed, there were unfilled places this year.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

The minister’s colleague Fergus Ewing made an important point in a contribution in a debate a couple of weeks ago about the possibility of a bond for medical graduates in order to try to retain them in Scotland. Has the minister considered that? That could be part of a funding structure that could be of considerable help in ensuring that we retain more of our graduates.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I appreciate Liz Smith’s point, but I say gently to her that that responsibility sits with health colleagues, rather than in education. I am happy to take that way and discuss it with them.

On the issue of inaccurate assertions, Pam Duncan-Glancy committed Labour to maintaining free tuition in Scotland—that is Michael Marra telt. On a point of accuracy, I gently point out that, contrary to what she implied, when Labour was last in power, it had tuition fees—back-door tuition fees—and she cannot rewrite history.

As I have made clear throughout the debate, there is more to do. The hardest part of the journey is the one that is immediately in front of us. That places an expectation on institutions to continue to work with the Government, the Scottish Funding Council and others at pace to make further progress. I assure our institutions that they have a willing partner in that work in me. I am committed to working with them and the commissioner—I had a useful meeting with him last week—to explore the recommendations that he has made. It is fair to say that the measures that we have deployed so far, although clearly successful, will require to be supplemented by additional steps to ensure that we complete our important task.

Things have undoubtedly changed since we set out on this journey—for example, as I said to Willie Rennie, we have had a global pandemic that has left a legacy of lost learning. We are in the midst of a cost of living crisis. We need to consider what else we might do in order to reach the targets that have been set. In addition, we need to recognise that many young people who do not live in an SIMD20 postcode area will also face barriers to accessing higher education, and it is important that we identify and support them. That is why we are already considering additional widening access measures to work alongside SIMD, including free school meals.

There are challenges around data sharing. For example, data on free school meals is collected and shared in a different way elsewhere in the UK, using a different legal framework. We need to look at ways in which we can deliver on that for Scotland while ensuring that we comply with UK data protection legislation. As I have said, my officials are working through those challenges with a can-do attitude, and they are looking to find a solution. I am very happy to keep any interested members updated on that work. There is an absolute requirement to explore what can be done in the immediate term, so we need to be open to considering any and all viable approaches that are suggested to us.

At a recent meeting on that topic that I attended, the idea of utilising school clothing grant data, for example, was advanced. How the grant is applied varies among local authorities, but that might be an approach that is worthy of exploring—while accepting, of course, that we still have the data-sharing hurdle to overcome. I have tasked officials with being open to any such suggestions and working on all of them at pace.

As I mentioned earlier, we are committed to making use of the unique regional data-sharing agreement that local authorities, colleges and universities in the north-east of Scotland have in place, which enables them to share data with the partners of that agreement. That will allow us to pilot the use of free school meals data in that region. We hope to use the learning from that pilot to inform our Scotland-wide approach.

I want to remind members of the progress that has been made and to credit the efforts of our universities and colleges in that. Action that has been taken by Scotland’s universities in support of those with care experience has had a pronounced impact. That is demonstrated by the number of entrants in that category rising from 485 in 2020-21 to 545 in 2021-22. Within the increase in students progressing from college through articulation over the same period, almost 24 per cent were from SIMD20 areas. Those are just two further examples of the progress that has been made, and they are indicative of so much positive work that is happening across the higher education sector.

Earlier, the Government was accused of patting itself on the back. Far from it. We have given credit where it belongs, to the colleges and universities.

I further acknowledge the role of colleges in delivering higher education. If we include Scottish colleges, 20.3 per cent of all full-time undergraduate entrants were from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in 2021-22. Again, that is testament to the work that is carried out by those institutions. Once again, I put on the record my thanks and the thanks of the Government for their efforts thus far.

However, there is more to do—and we are committed to doing it. That will require action from Government, institutions and others. Opposition members have referred to the number of university places in the system and to the temporary Covid places that are now leaving the system, as planned. I say gently that that highlights a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation and of the sector.

I am keen to work with universities to ensure that we are doing everything that we can to encourage young people—particularly those from a widening access background—to apply for the spare places in the system that I referred to earlier and, indeed, to ensure that, if they choose to apply, they are able to meet the requirements. That is one of the opportunities that we can explore in order to make further progress and complete our journey.

I go back to the issue that I raised in opening the debate, which I consider to be the central, fundamental policy in the widening access agenda: protecting the right to free tuition. Since the Government abolished Labour’s back-door tuition fees, we have seen the number of Scottish entrants to universities increase by 31 per cent and record numbers of students from our poorest communities. The impact of the policy is indisputable; it is one of the Parliament’s crowning achievements. It shows the benefits of making decisions in Scotland for Scotland. That is why it has been so concerning to hear front benchers from both Westminster parties suggesting going back to the dark days of fees—whether up front or by the back door. However, I acknowledge Pam Duncan-Glancy’s clarification.

Let me be clear: under this Government, tuition fees will never be imposed on students in Scotland. Education will be based on the ability to learn and not the ability to pay. Indeed, just yesterday, my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills announced that we can go further and enshrine the right to free university education in the constitution of an independent Scotland. That is just one of the many opportunities of independence. It is no wonder that so many young people in Scotland support taking that step and making all the decisions in Scotland.