Scottish students are finding it increasingly difficult to win a place at the country’s universities as the cap on funded places is maintained, a watchdog has warned.
In a major report, Audit Scotland says that the number of applications made by Scottish students to the country’s universities grew by 23 per cent between 2010 and 2015, but that the number of offers made to these applicants grew by only 9 per cent.
This means the offer rate for Scottish students fell by seven percentage points over five years, from 57 to 50 per cent. Over the same period, the proportion of Scottish applicants who did not receive any offers from a Scottish university increased by four percentage points, to nearly one in five (19 per cent).
Scottish students and those from the European Union do not pay tuition fees to study in Scotland, so universities receive an allocated number of funded places from the Scottish Funding Council.
The sum that the funding council pays per Scottish and EU student, £5,179, “does not directly reflect the actual cost” of teaching, Audit Scotland says.
As a result, universities have become increasingly reliant on income from students from the rest of the UK who pay tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year, and those from outside the EU, who can be charged even more.
The offer rates for these students are considerably higher than the Scottish rate: 63 per cent for non-EU applicants, and between 56 and 58 per cent for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
It means that, last year, two-thirds of all students at Scottish universities were from Scotland, compared with 75 per cent a decade earlier.
In the “ancient” universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews, Scottish students represent just 48 per cent of the undergraduate population.
Pete Downes, convenor of Universities Scotland and principal of the University of Dundee, warned that the country’s higher education institutions were facing “very real funding pressures”.
“We have a higher education sector that Scotland can and does take pride in,” Professor Downes said. “It is one of the best in the world but our current success is seriously threatened by the funding pressures identified and quantified in the report.”
The report, published on 7 July, says that overall funding for higher education allocated by the Scottish Funding Council has declined by 6 per cent in real terms since 2010-11.
It says that many of the country's most prestigious universities have faced reductions in quality-related research funding, because cash is being shared more equally across the sector, and says that institutions will also need to find additional money to improve their estates, which are in deteriorating condition.
Shirley-Anne Somerville, Scotland’s higher education minister, said that supporting students, especially those from deprived backgrounds, was a “top priority”.
She highlighted that the number of Scottish-domiciled full-time first degree entrants to Scottish universities had increased by 11 per cent since 2007 and that the free tuition policy meant that average student debt in Scotland was “the lowest in the UK”.