The government has sanctioned one anomaly in its refusal to fund a fourth year at Scottish universities for non-Scottish students. But, asks Olga Wojtas, how different is higher education north of the border?
The Garrick report sent out shock waves with its assertion: "Public expenditure on teaching per full-time student in higher education institutions per year is approximately 10 per cent higher in Scotland than in England."
This has fed straight into southern prejudices of pampered Jocks siphoning off disproportionately generous funds.
It is certainly true that public spending in Scotland is higher per capita than in England and Wales. What is alarming for Scottish higher education is that this differential is being eroded.
The 10 per cent variation in teaching has already been reduced to some 7 per cent by this year's funding round, in which Scotland has suffered a real-terms cut of 2.75 per cent, while English funding per student has risen by 0.1 per cent.
David Bleiman, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, tartly remarks that over the past decade, funding for each United Kingdom student has fallen by about 30 per cent. Any relative advantage for Scotland "simply measures either a slightly higher starting point or a slightly slower rate of decline".
Scotland's higher figure for teaching is unsurprising, given the different evolution of the higher education sectors north and south of the border. When the binary divide was removed, Scotland began from a more expensive base. The polytechnics and colleges made up the larger grouping in England, while universities formed the major Scottish group. Cheaper sub-degree work is largely the preserve of the Scottish Office-funded further education colleges, making direct comparisons between the two higher education sectors impossible.
The Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals is alarmed by the fat-cat image, fearing it is "unduly influencing" the Treasury and ministers in determining Scottish resources. A significant proportion of students in Scotland come from elsewhere in the UK, and research commissioned by Coshep concludes that public funding for Scottish higher education is broadly in line with its share of the UK student population.
The Garrick committee focused specifically on public spending on teaching. But Arthur Midwinter, a Strathclyde University expert in public expenditure, calculates that the difference between per capita funding in Scotland and England is less than 1 per cent on the basis of public spending for the whole of higher education. "It is impossible to separate out teaching costs from research costs in terms of staff salaries and running costs," he says.
Coshep also argues that Scotland supplies a startlingly high proportion of the UK's graduates in many areas, including more than 30 per cent of the UK's veterinary science graduates, almost 14 per cent of medical and dental graduates and more than 12 per cent of engineering and technology graduates.
The AUTS predicts that the 2.75 per cent cut will lead to the loss of 600 university posts, half of them academic, and up to 1,000 Scottish jobs in total.