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Universities struggle to bridge funding gap

It was both an opportunity and a potential pitfall from the start.

The decision by Scottish universities to introduce fees of up to £9000 a year for students from the rest of the UK (RUK), mirroring a similar change south of the Border, was widely seen as a chance for Scottish universities to increase their income by attracting more paying students. At the same time, however, the funding they had previously received from the public purse to help pay for RUK students was withdrawn; unless they could attract enough paying students to make up the shortfall, they would experience a drop in income.

We now know that four universities have been unable to close that funding gap, with Aberdeen losing out to the tune of £1.2 million. It and the other three universities that have reported a shortfall will no doubt hope it is a temporary blip that can be overcome with better and more intensive marketing of their student offering to RUK students, but if this is not the case it has potentially worrying implications.

It always seemed likely that the most prestigious universities would win the greatest rewards from the ability to charge fees at the new high rate to RUK students. World-renowned institutions such as Edinburgh and St Andrews universities have never had trouble attracting more than enough applications from students south of the Border. For them, there was always a good chance of making a profit out of the new fee arrangements. Although they did not respond to the Freedom of Information request, it is likely that they have done so. Not so every university, however. Abertay, Queen Margaret University and the University of the West of Scotland, as well as Aberdeen, have struggled to attract enough students to balance the books. The danger if this situation persists is that Scotland's top universities will increasingly exist in a super league of their own, seeing their student RUK numbers and finances grow, while others struggle to make ends meet, to the potential detriment of students.

It is early days. One survey does not tell the whole story. This initial jolt to the system will hopefully produce a targeted marketing push on the part of those affected institutions, resulting in more RUK applications in coming years.

It may also prompt a review of the level at which fees are set by certain universities, to make them more attractive to potential students. A settling in period for the new fee-charging arrangements is inevitable. Whatever action is taken, however, it is essential that the situation is monitored to ensure that these shortfalls do not grow over coming years.

Meanwhile, it is to be hoped that the strong example set by Heriot-Watt University in ploughing 37% of its fee income back into bursary payments for students from less well-off backgrounds will prompt other institutions to increase the amount they spend. It is a fiercely defended tenet of the Scottish education system that accessing a top flight tertiary education should depend on ability, not ability to pay.

Using fee income to fund bursaries is central to supporting that principle. Those institutions that pay relatively little should seek to do more.

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