A university funding shortfall in Scotland could leave the UK with a two-tier system, it was claimed this week, writes Tariq Tahir. Universities Scotland asked for a funding package that would have seen the sector's budget rise by £168 million over three years, but the Scottish National Party Government announced last week that the figure would rise by only £30 million.
Vice-chancellors north of the border have expressed fears about the ability of Scottish universities to compete with their counterparts in England, who can call on top-up student tuition fees, which are currently capped at £3,000 a year, as an additional revenue source.
If, as expected, English tuition fees rise after a 2009 review, many believe that Scottish higher education could begin to lag behind the rest of the UK. Its reputation for research excellence is thought to be particularly under threat.
Ian Gibson, a member of the new House of Commons Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee, said that he expected the committee to look at the impact of devolution on higher education.
"It would be almost like another tier (of UK higher education)," Dr Gibson said. "Maintaining their level of excellence alongside the Russell Group would be a real challenge for Scottish universities.
"The level of interaction between Scotland and England has been high for a number of years, and if that is inhibited by a lack of money then we ought to be making a noise about it."
Universities Scotland held an executive meeting earlier this week. Its convener, Sir Muir Russell, was due to meet Scotland's Education Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, after The Times Higher went to press, to ask for at least some of the shortfall to be made up.
One area of concern is that the first year of the budget coincides with the final year of the three-year 2006 pay deal, which was negotiated to take account of extra income from top-up fees in English universities.
Scotland's institutions will now have to pick up the pay bill in a year where they will in effect face a cash freeze.
Sir Muir, principal of Glasgow University, said: "Universities will have to look for efficiency and economies. The one thing I'm not going to do is press the panic button."
He said the disappointment felt by the sector was made more acute by the importance attached by the new Scottish Government to higher education's role in tackling Scotland's poor economic growth.
"I don't think anybody felt that we were asking for a ridiculous amount, and when people see that it is so little then I think they will be demoralised," said Sir Muir.
Ms Hyslop said she appreciated universities' disappointment at the budget but added: "There's a lot to do in growing the competitiveness of the university sector.
"Universities Scotland themselves acknowledge that they are competitive, and our analysis is that they will remain competitive," she said.
"If Universities Scotland are wanting to ask for more money, are they are going to say which part of the budget they want it to come from? Is it to come from care for the elderly? Or patients' needs? Is it for money for school pupils? Nursery provision? That is the case they will have to make."