Higher education is a matter substantially devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, but decisions made at Westminster can continue to have an impact on the whole of the UK higher education sector as was demonstrated by the change in tuition fees policy in the aftermath of the 2010 General Election.
In the 2015 General Election, higher education funding in England is again a point of divergence between the two largest parties’ policy platforms, with Labour proposing to lower tuition fees to £6,000 per annum and the Conservatives sticking to the current levels. In the event of another hung parliament, the votes of Scottish MPs might well determine the policy outcome.
The SNP leader and First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is committed to free undergraduate university education in Scotland, as is Scottish Labour’s leader, Jim Murphy. MPs elected from both parties, which opinion polls show will win the vast majority of Scotland’s 59 seats in Westminster, will support lowering tuition fees to £6,000 per annum in England.
How universities are funded is a political decision. It is the job of Universities Scotland (and UUK and UW) to argue that however we are funded, that funding comes at a level which can provide learners with a world-class education, support cutting-edge research, maintain our competitiveness and be sustainable. Any reduction in tuition fee income in England, therefore, must be replaced by UK Government spend, and in Scotland we would call on the Scottish Government to pass on the Barnett consequentials to the sector, so that our institutions continue to nurture home talent and compete for international talent and investment at home and abroad.
On attracting international talent, there is cross-party support in the Scottish Parliament for the reintroduction of a post-study work route for international students. The Smith Commission on further powers for Scotland made the recommendation that the Scottish and UK governments should to work together to “explore the possibility of introducing formal schemes to allow international higher education students graduating from Scottish further and higher education institutions to remain in Scotland and contribute to economic activity for a defined period of time”. This may increase the pressure on a post-election UK Government to reintroduce a post-study work entitlement for the whole UK.
The SNP and Scottish Liberal Democrat 2015 manifestos make specific commitments on a post study work route for Scotland whilst all five main Scottish Parties’ manifestos commit to delivering the Smith Commission proposals. So we are hopeful that post-election this issue will be picked up again with renewed momentum and with the support of all new and returning Scottish MPs, we will see this delivered for Scotland. However, we are pragmatic about how this policy goal is achieved and we would be equally welcoming of a change in policy in Westminster post-election for the benefit of all UK universities. In that vein, it is worth noting that the UK Labour Party manifesto talks about welcoming overseas university students in the context changing how the immigration system is controlled and managed so it is fair.
Commitments made in the manifestos can help the sector deliver benefits for the UK’s society and economy. This includes support and investment, including capital spending, for universities’ research and innovation – investment that can see UK universities build on the results of the 2014 research excellence framework – as well as no rises in VAT or National Insurance.
Other manifesto commitments present challenges for the UK higher education sector to rise up to and respond, including on widening access, fair work and gender representation on boards. Scottish university leaders have already made important commitments on widening access, fair work, and on gender equality on governing bodies.
The greatest challenge of all might be informing the public debate ahead of an in/out referendum on EU membership; Universities UK has already explained the potential adverse consequences of a UK withdrawal.
Whatever the outcome of the 2015 General Election, universities will need the support of all those elected to Parliament in order to deliver world-class higher education.