Scotland’s new education secretary has said that progress to widen access to the country’s universities is “just not fast enough” and has called for “restraint” on principals’ pay.
Angela Constance also used her first interview on higher education to confirm that negotiations on a separate post-study work visa scheme for Scotland were due to begin later this month.
Speaking to Times Higher Education at her Holyrood office, the MSP said that a commission tasked with setting “meaningful milestones” for increasing the number of young people from the poorest backgrounds who go to university would be set up soon.
While efforts to widen participation have made progress, students from the 20 per cent most deprived communities still represent only 13.3 per cent of the overall intake of Scotland’s universities, and at some “ancient” institutions the proportion is much lower.
“It’s a move in the right direction but we are very clear that it’s just not fast enough,” Ms Constance said.
The new minister has identified raising attainment in schools as her top priority, but she said that universities had to “lead” on access issues, with the country’s elite universities having a “particular responsibility”.
“Young people from the background I was from, from a West Lothian mining village, who want to go to St Andrews to study Classics, should have an equal right to do so, and we need to ensure that there are no barriers to them,” Ms Constance continued. “That will require us looking across our education system, so what happens before young people are making choices about the future is absolutely crucial, but nonetheless that will not and must not let universities off the hook.”
One policy not up for negotiation, it appears, is the Scottish National Party’s opposition to tuition fees, with Ms Constance claiming that “scare stories” about the country’s universities falling behind competitors because of underfunding had been proved false. The success of the policy, she argued, had “shifted the ground politically” on higher education funding.
An area where she does have concerns, however, is principals’ remuneration. This year a number of vice-chancellors have accepted pay rises that are significantly above inflation, with some salaries going up by as much as 8 per cent.
Ms Constance, formerly the Cabinet secretary for training, youth and women’s employment, said that it would be wrong for principals’ pay to go up if lower-ranking employees did not get similar rises.
“Principals have to receive treatment that’s on a par with other university staff, and I would certainly encourage restraint,” she said.
The other key issue in Ms Constance’s in tray is student immigration, following the cross-party agreement to explore the possibility of a post-study work visa, in response to falling numbers of international students studying at Scotland’s universities.
The minister said that Holyrood officials have been “working through the detail” of such a scheme, and a meeting with Home Office staff is due to be held this month.
Ms Constance said that she “hoped” there was now a prospect of a Scottish post-study work visa becoming a reality, but expressed disappointment that the Smith Commission, which made recommendations on further devolution of powers to Holyrood last year, did not expressly endorse its introduction.