University and college leaders have accused ministers of depriving their institutions of investment in what has been described as an indictment of the government’s further and higher education policy.
Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, and Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, say the 2022/23 Budget settlement will mean a “real terms” funding cut.
In a strongly worded joint letter, they also stress more than a third of university students have reported suffering “moderate or severe” depression amid Covid-related disruption to learning. Their missive highlights the critical need for cash to address these issues.
Pressed over the matter during a meeting with MSPs, Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville insisted ministers in Edinburgh had been forced to make difficult spending decisions within constraints imposed by the UK Treasury’s block grant.
She told Holyrood’s Education, Children and Young People Committee: “I do absolutely, fully, appreciate the role that colleges and universities have played and will continue to play, particularly in our recovery from Covid. The fact that there are no consequentials arising from Covid coming to the Scottish Government has presented the government with challenges in these areas.”
However, the letter from Mr Sim and Ms Struthers warns that cuts in the latest Budget are part of an “established overall pattern of a lack of investment”. It also says the trend has “put real pressure on our students, staff and infrastructure”.
Stephen Kerr, Conservative MSP and committee convener, told Ms Somerville the remarks were “quite damning”.
The letter, which is addressed to Mr Kerr, adds: “We asked for increased investment in universities’ capacity for research and innovation given the proven link to leverage of private and other investment into Scotland, supporting the recovery, high-skill jobs and fuelling sustainable growth.
“We also asked the Scottish Government to use this budget to invest more in teaching on a per student basis to address chronic underfunding. University students have faced three years of disruption to their degrees. We now have strong and concerning evidence that the disruption is taking an undeniable toll on students’ educational resilience and mental health.”
The letter warns colleges have faced “severe challenges” and highlights the “lack of future funding for services, including mental health support which in 2021/22 was covered by Covid-consequential funding”.
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It states: “We very much welcome the Scottish Government’s intention to present a multi-year budget and the opportunity for stakeholders to inform the Scottish Government’s thinking. However, the outcome of the 2022/23 budget sends the deeply unfortunate signal that the Scottish Government does not fully recognise the role that colleges and universities play in the critical delivery of education, skills, and research, which absolutely support economic recovery and transformation.
“In that context, we are very concerned of the prospects for colleges and universities in a multi-year settlement which the Cabinet Secretary for Finance is expected to deliver in May 2022.”
Ms Somerville defended her government’s spending plans. She said: “We are allocating nearly £2 billion to Scotland’s universities and colleges within this Budget. I think that is a fair settlement in a challenging area. I think we have provided fair settlements again in the past.
“So, I do appreciate that there are challenges that have been seen but I would point to the fact, for example, between 2007 and 2021, the college sector resource budget has increased by over 30 per cent in cash terms.”
Mr Kerr said he was “not sure” the Education Secretary’s remarks would give Universities Scotland and Colleges Scotland “much comfort”.