A Scottish Funding Council ( SFC) paper published in April showed that universities face operating deficits of between £383 million and £651 million in academic year 2020-21 alone. The SFC also said that the college sector faces significant challenges as a result of loss in income and increased costs.
This may at first seem odd. Why would Higher Education be so badly affected when it surely depends so heavily on public funding? After all Scottish students don’t pay fees so why doesn’t the Scottish government simply continue to fund as if students were still studying?
The reason is that Scottish Universities, including the two members of the elite Russell group, Glasgow and Edinburgh have extensive income from overseas students. Many of these students are Chinese and are extremely unlikely to come to Scotland while the crisis persists and ‘normal’ education is suspended. Edinburgh has 12,025 and Glasgow 8,815 enough to populate a decent sized university by themselves
This is not the place to consider the ethics of this provision but according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, these students are more likely to undertake courses like Business & Administrative studies and Social studies, course which unlike science for example can have a high lecturer student ratio with very few costs in relation to additional resources like expensive equipment. They are not courses, in other words, that Scotland is uniquely placed to offer based on expertise or facilities.
In relation to the tertiary sector there are probably three issues here for the left: why have our institutions invested so heavily in teaching overseas students? Does the crisis allow for any radical interventions, for example expanding access through online learning and what are the implications of the review for both the staff and students of our universities and colleges?
The Universities claim that the income they get from the Scottish government is insufficient to sustain current plans and future development. Universities Scotland in its May briefing on the impact of Covid noted:
“COVID-19 has exposed just how dependent the Scottish higher education sector now is on international student fee income to subsidise publicly-funded activities of teaching undergraduate Scottish and EU students and to underpin publicly funded research. Audit Scotland previously highlighted this vulnerability, arising from many years of cuts in SFC funding, in its 2016 and 2019 reports. This emergency will hit the very income streams that sustain our sector the hardest.”
The expected deficit for the Scottish Higher Education sector is £500 million. For Glasgow Caledonian University, for example, way down the scale of likely impact with an anticipated deficit of £15 million, there will nevertheless be pay freeze, recruitment freeze, operational costs saving and a pause infrastructure projects. This will still leave a deficit of £6 million pounds.
Of course whether current funding from the Scottish government is sufficient or not depends very much on the what you think Higher Education ought to be about and therefore how it is structured. Undoubtedly for the Scottish ancient universities, it should mimic the kind of experience offered by Oxbridge. It is supposed to be an intense immersion in a learning community with extensive socialising and social network building. In Scotland this is a largely middle class experience because independent schools and middle class students are still heavily over-represented in Scotland’s universities. Or put the other way round School leavers from poor backgrounds in Scotland are only half as likely to go into higher education (HE) as their more affluent peers, and many of those will go to the post 1992 universities.
Perhaps at this point we should consider should whether Covid 19 by ushering in online learning might just help widen access and offer a radical point of departure for the sector.
This is indeed an optimistic point of view. Enter MOOCS and OPMs. MOOCS stands for Massive Open Online Courses. These are low-cost ways for wider groups of students to access HE. Typically, MOOCs consist of pre-recorded video lectures accompanied by other learning resources and collaborative discussion boards which are intended to support learners to specified learning outcomes. And along with MOOCS we have Online program management(OPM) infrastructure services provided by usually private companies to enable universities to deliver online and distance education courses.
Leaving aside how effective they are and their effectiveness has been challenged, the broader agenda here, at least in part, is creating low-cost higher education. There is a real danger that MOOCS will reinforce rather than undermine the two-tier education system which we have in Scotland between post and pre-1992 universities, with campus-based learning as premium elite education of the Oxbridge sort and online learning as a basic, endlessly, flexible offering which allows working class students to continue to do paid work which necessarily reduces the amount of time for studying or socialising.
In light of this what is this review likely to do. According to SFC the review will “consider the changes needed to existing funding, operations and accountability frameworks in order to respond effectively to the new challenges and opportunities brought by COVID-19. It will provide advice, where appropriate, to Ministers on relevant changes to policy funding for tertiary education and research. Ministers have asked SFC to provide its initial considerations by August”.
I understand that this is with a view to re-shaping FE and HE provision and that it will include areas such as the range of education and qualifications on offer. The review will also look at duplication in provision, presumably on a cross sector basis.
This suggests that either vertical or horizontal integration of one sort or another is likely- in other words mergers if not of institutions then delivery, between FE and HE providers and/ or mergers between HE providers like Strathclyde and GCU and or FE colleges. Given that the FE sector has been reorganised only recently it is difficult to believe that the government would attempt another institutional re-organisation. And given the prestige and institutional weight of the ancient universities then it is the post 1992 sector that would seem most vulnerable to radical change.
As a left, our first response must be the defence of jobs. But we are also going to have to think carefully about what we believe ought to be the role of higher education – is it to be a system for reproducing the Scottish elite or a safe space for critical thinking as well as producing well-rounded professionals and innovative engineers, scientists and artists.