Scots' fears over banding shake-up

Science and the arts benefit but IT and education miss out in proposed system, writes Hannah Fearn

October 8, 2009

Plans to overhaul the way university teaching is funded in Scotland have come under fire amid fears that the proposals will disadvantage post-1992 institutions north of the border.

The Scottish Funding Council is carrying out a three-month review of the way it distributes teaching funding to Scottish universities.

The £700 million annual budget for teaching is allocated to universities depending on the number of students enrolled to study each subject.

Subjects are currently grouped into 12 bands, with 23 different "prices" per student based on the cost of delivering education in each discipline.

However, research carried out by the SFC found that under the current system, some subjects were underfunded while other disciplines' funding outstripped the costs of delivery.

Under proposals unveiled last week, the number of bands would be cut to just four, leaving many subjects at risk of significant cuts.

If the plans are approved, funding for science and the creative arts will increase, while cash for other subjects will decrease.

The built environment faces a 22 per cent cut in funding, education a 10 per cent decrease and computing and information sciences a 9 per cent reduction.

Brian Sloan, professor of surveying and director of research and knowledge transfer at Edinburgh Napier University, said the proposals were worrying as the built environment is already under-funded compared with other related disciplines.

"We felt it quite unfair that the built environment is placed at a much lower level than civil engineering, although all our facilities are provided in common," he said.

The plans would also split the sector, with the newest universities suffering while the ancient institutions would receive up to 5 per cent more teaching funding.

Calculations suggest that post-92 universities including Queen Margaret University and Glasgow Caledonian University would experience funding cuts of up to 4 per cent if the plans are ratified.

This is largely because they deliver more of the subjects facing cuts, which also include nursing.

Meanwhile, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama would see its funding increase by 12 per cent under the proposals, which will be under consultation until December.

Although there is broad acceptance that subject costs need to be reviewed, universities say there is no reason to simplify a system which they believe works effectively.

One source close to the consultation process said: "Why does it need simplifying? We're not in the age of the abacus."

Universities Scotland said: "We have concerns over the evidence base which has been used, given that it involves a major potential upheaval of the sector's funding for teaching in what is already an uncertain and highly pressured environment."

Petra Wend, principal of Queen Margaret, said she had spoken with other university heads to co-ordinate a response to the plans.

A spokesman for the SFC stressed that the proposals were still subject to discussion, and that the sector's concerns would be taken into account.

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