Radical changes proposed to address higher education budget shortfalls

As both universities and students grapple with budgetary uncertainties and debt, radical changes have been proposed to the structure of the Scottish higher education system.

A new round of calls has been made proposing a shortening of the degree period from four years to three years with the aim of reducing student debt.

Meanwhile, UK political officials and academics have begun to lend support to the reintroduction of fees for Scottish students at Scottish universities.

The proposals add fuel to long-running policy debates by both scholars and politicians.

Last week, Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable joined academics across the UK in suggesting that Scotland’s policy of free tuition generally did more harm than good.

And in recent comments, University of Western Scotland (UWS) principal Ferdinand von Prondzynski claimed that the policy of free tuition has led to a lack of funding of Scottish universities.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, he pointed to a multi-million pound shortfall to contrast Scottish universities with their English counterparts.

“All the SNP’s approach achieves is a hefty bill for the taxpayer, which in itself hinders Scottish students in the long-run,” he said.

He continued: “I believe this is a conversation we have to have; I believe there is an appetite to discuss this. But the concern is, if you are seen to be affronting current government policy, that may cause problems.”

In addition to concerns about funding, proponents of Scottish fees claim that they disrupt access.
Cable insisted that Scotland’s policy has in fact, paradoxically, led to a decrease in university attendance for children from disadvantaged families.

In 2013, Professor Sheila Riddell, director of the University of Edinburgh Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity (CREID), highlighted a fall in the proportion of working class students in Scottish universities.

Her research showed the number of students declining from 21 per cent in 2002-2003 to 19 per cent a decade later.
Riddell called the trend “very similar” to that seen in English universities, despite the fees. However, in 2008 SNP ministers admitted “a slight increase in the proportion of applications from students from poorer backgrounds” in England.

Currently, students from both Scotland and other EU member states are entitled to free tuition at Scotland’s 19 Universities.

Students from other parts of the UK are charged up to £9,000 nation-wide, depending on the institution.

As a result of the policy, the SNP estimates that Scottish students have saved a combined total of £940 million this year alone.

Yet research has also suggested the benefit falls mainly with the middle classes rather than with those who would not have been able to afford to pay tuition. A study published by Edinburgh University in 2013 indicates that the free tuition policy concentrates “resources on those who are already relatively advantaged.”

For now, action appears to be far on the horizon. A University of Edinburgh spokesman told The Student: “We are not aware of any plans to introduce fees for students in Scotland.”

As tuition dominates the political discourse, another trend has slowly developed: Scottish universities shedding a year from their trademark four year programmes.

The University of Dundee, Abertay University, Queen Margaret University, and the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) have all introduced three year courses.

Clive Mulholland, UHI’s principal, explained the change would allow students to “embark on their chosen career more quickly and save money in the process.”

Yet concerns have been raised about Scottish universities risking losing the flexibility their longer degrees offer.

Speaking to The Student, a University of Edinburgh spokesperson said: “The University of Edinburgh’s four-year degree offers breadth, depth and flexibility of study that is attractive to almost 60,000 applicants each year and ensures our graduates are well prepared for the evolving demands of the modern workplace.”

“That flexibility also means that applicants with relevant A levels or Advanced Highers can choose to shorten their time at University through direct entry to Year 2 if they so desire.”

The Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA) has no student council policy on the matter, but Vice President Academic Affairs Dash Sekhar told The Student: “The key problem remains the fees rather than the length of degree… students should not be in debt at all, regardless of degree-length.”

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