MSPs call for more cash to remain competitive

January 9, 2004

Extra cash should be paid to Scotland's universities and colleges to stop them falling behind their English counterparts that will benefit from top-up fees and higher research income, according to a report from members of the Scottish Parliament.

The MSPs decided to send their Scottish Solutions report to Scottish MPs at Westminster in the hope of informing their decisions when they come to vote on the higher education bill, which seeks to introduce top-up fees in England, later this month.

Staff and students in Scotland's universities and colleges have warmly welcomed the report, which calls for a "significant" real-terms increase.

It fails to name a specific amount.

The report, from the Scottish Parliament's enterprise and culture committee, investigates the impact north of the border of the higher education white paper, published last January. It warns that research funding and top-up fees will give England extra income, putting Scotland at a competitive disadvantage unless it has its own funding boost.

The report says that the white paper risks making it increasingly difficult for Scottish universities to recruit and retain high-quality staff.

The Scottish Executive believes that top-up fees ought to lead to extra funding coming north of the border through the Barnett formula. The formula ensures that if public spending rises in England, it rises proportionately in Scotland. As the Treasury would have to cover the cost of university top-up fees from 2006 until such time as graduate repayments started to roll in, this would amount to an increase in state spending and should, therefore, be reflected in the Barnett formula.

But the committee is not convinced that funds will be forthcoming and warns that if they were, they would be only short term.

Committee convener Alasdair Morgan said that the reason the report was sent to all Scottish MPs was not to instruct them how to vote but to "assist them in their deliberations".

The MSPs were angered by the white paper's failure to con-sider any knock-on effect north of the border and the lack of prior warning from Westminster.

Mr Morgan said Scottish ministers had kept their Westminster counterparts informed about the Scottish plans to abolish tuition fees. "That points up the strangeness of why it didn't work more in the other direction."

Rami Okasha, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, called the report a warning shot across the bows for MPs. He said that any Scottish MP who voted for top-up fee legislation would be seen to be voting for their career rather than their constituents.

The committee calls on the Scottish Executive and the UK government to review their arrangements for communicating with one another.

Scottish universities and colleges want an extra £100 million a year by 2006-07, when top-up fees would be introduced. But the report avoids specific sums.

Mr Morgan said: "Much of the detail of the proposed implementation of the white paper is unclear. This has made it very difficult for the committee to obtain accurate costings and predicted impacts."

But the committee's unanimous view is that if the executive wants the Scottish economy to grow, it must significantly increase its investment in the sector.

Bill Stevely, convener of Universities Scotland, said much of the evidence given to the committee stressed the point that higher education was a central part of Scotland's national competitiveness and must not be jeopardised.

"This report may not make it easier to find new investment for higher education, but we hope that it will strengthen enterprise and lifelong learning minister Jim Wallace's hand when he is making the case on behalf of the sector," Mr Stevely said.

Mr Wallace said: "I have made it clear that I will argue the case for additional funding for higher education during the [Scottish] spending review. However, I have also said, and been supported by this report, that additional money alone will not help Scottish higher education institutions, and that there must also be innovative ideas for working, such as increased collaboration."

The report says institutions have a responsibility to con-tinue to look for external funds, notably from business and endowments.

Key proposals in the Scottish solutions report

  • Scottish higher education has the chance to build on the features that differentiate it from England, such as wider access, closer links with further education and its historic focus on "useful knowledge"
  • The Scottish Executive should investigate marketing Scottish higher education's "global brand" overseas
  • The executive must tackle the lower levels of support for part-time students
  • Universities must be more proactive in seeking external funds, particularly from industry, commerce and endowments
  • The executive needs to work with institutions and unions to tackle the problem of staff recruitment and retention
  • The executive should monitor cross-border flows of students to see if there are changes.

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