Austerity, Brexit & centralisation in HE

Scotland’s universities are in for a stormy time ahead. The Tory government’s austerity squeeze at Westminster is being passed on once again to the higher education sector in Scotland in the latest Scottish Budget. We’re feeling the impact of the UK government’s Higher Education and Research Bill north of the border too. The seismic effect of last year’s Brexit vote (along with the rejection of ‘experts’ and all that this entails) is already playing out negatively in higher education across the UK. It is certainly a challenging time to be working or studying at our universities.

The recent Scottish Budget did no favours for universities. A further cut to funding, on top of last year’s 3.1% decrease at a time when universities are being quite rightly asked to do more to widen access to higher education, is tough. This, on top of increasing costs, overheads and pensions contributions, makes life even harder for those at the chalk face.

UCU warmly welcomed last year’s Widening Access Commission report recommendations – a range of well thought out proposals to ensure that the playing field is levelled for everyone with ability to undertake university level study. However, supporting students from non-traditional backgrounds to enter and successfully complete their studies requires resources, time and support from academic and support staff. So the efficiencies that are already being made, on top of the increasing demands upon staff for research and teaching excellence, make the important widening access goals just that more difficult to achieve.  ucu-1140-400

The challenging financial situation for Scottish higher education is underlined by the fact that we’ve seen UCU members fighting back against actual or threatened redundancies in over a quarter of universities in the past eighteen months. This doesn’t bode well for the further cuts to budgets that are likely to be on the horizon before 2020.

Disappointingly, the Scottish Government and Parliament last year supported a Legislative Consent Motion (LCM) which introduced some of the worst elements of the Westminster Government’s Higher Education and Research Bill into Scotland. The main aim of this piece of legislation is to link tuition fee hikes in England to ‘teaching quality’.

However, UCU has been critical of the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) which purports to do this, given the arbitrary metrics it plans to use do nothing to measure teaching quality, and it does not sit well with the typical four year undergraduate degree in Scotland. The Bill introduces more competition into the system, making students consumers not learners, and raises the prospect of new private providers and the threat of a ‘Trump university’ in the UK.

UCU is strongly opposing the Bill as it passes through Westminster, and gave oral evidence against the LCM to Holyrood’s Education Committee. Sadly, the Committee felt compelled to allow Scottish universities to compete in the TEF. However, the good news is that campaigning by the National Union of Students and UCU on campuses has meant that only five Scottish universities have actually signalled their intention to go into the next round of the TEF.

The sector is reeling from the referendum decision last year to leave the European Union, and is still assessing the possible consequences for universities. Education does not have borders, and is a global community. Thousands of students from the EU study in Scotland and the UK and, indeed, international and European students provide essential academic, cultural, social and financial contributions to our system here in Scotland. Around a quarter of academic researchers in Scotland’s universities are from the EU, and international staff are vital to the reputation of our sector.

The ‘leave’ vote, and the manner in which the UK Government has failed to give any meaningful guarantees about EU staff and students continuing to work, live and study in the UK post-Brexit, is particularly damaging. Whilst it has been helpful that the Scottish Government was able to guarantee that students applying in 2017 to study in the next academic year will have their fees paid for the duration of their courses, there are still far too many uncertainties, barriers and negativity which is deeply alarming for higher education.

It was good to see universities’ wholeheartedly supporting February’s ‘One Day Without Us’ initiative, and UCU was pleased to get behind Universities Scotland’s ‘Scotland Welcomes the World’ campaign, to challenge the populist racism and xenophobia narrative that seems to have emerged during and since the referendum campaign. A strong, independent, free and accessible public education system is going to be so important to enable us to face the challenges ahead. It is vital that we continue to make the case for Scotland’s universities.

Mary Senior is the Scotland official for the University and College Union (UCU)