A policy paper published today by Universities Scotland, which represents university principals, calls on the Scottish Government to take urgent legislative action to introduce a graduate contribution scheme by 2012-13.
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The paper, titled Towards A Scottish Solution, warns that at a time of drastic cuts in public money, the sector faces a dire future unless alternative funding streams are developed.
“Major cuts that are not compensated for by new income streams will fundamentally damage universities’ contribution to Scotland’s economic and social resilience,” the report states.
“Public spending cuts in line with projections will therefore result in fewer Scots able to access a university education.
“Those Scots still able to secure a place … will face a reduced choice of subjects and a deterioration in the student experience.”
Universities Scotland is also proposing a radical shake-up of the structure of higher education, ushering in the prospect of a three-year degree for some.
While still supporting the current four-year course for most students, the organisation said school pupils who stay on until sixth year to study Advanced Highers and the new Scottish Baccalaureates could go straight into the second year of a university course.
The report comes at a time of unprecedented uncertainty over the future funding of higher education in Scotland.
Last week, Chancellor George Osborne unveiled cuts of 40% to teaching budgets at institutions south of the Border, amounting to £2.9 billion.
Although these moves do not apply directly to Scotland, overall public funding here will be reduced in line with Westminster cuts, leaving the SNP with difficult choices in November’s Scottish Budget.
More pressure was heaped on Scottish universities when Business Secretary Vince Cable said he was considering sanctioning annual fee contributions of up to £7000 from students in England -- more than twice the current limit.
Universities in Scotland fear they will be unable to compete with English rivals because of the considerable additional income those universities will be able to generate through higher top-up tuition fees.
Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said there was “no credible way” income from other sources, such as overseas students or philanthropic giving, could fill the gap left by “significant funding cuts”.
“We need to ensure that Scottish universities are funded at a level that ensures their competitiveness and financial sustainability ... otherwise we are at severe risk of causing lasting damage that cannot be reversed easily,” he said.
“We need urgently to work to build a political consensus around a fair model of graduate contribution for Scotland.
“University education is a benefit for the individual as well as for society, and it is fair that the individuals who benefit should make a contribution.”
Last night, NUS Scotland, which represents students, said any graduate contribution would have to differ from the up-front tuition fees charged in England.
Liam Burns, president of the organisation, said: “Principals have failed to say how their graduate contribution is any different from a tuition fee.
“If someone thumbing through a prospectus can see that university will cost them thousands of pounds, we know it will put off those from the poorest backgrounds. That is unacceptable.”
Mary Senior, Scottish official for the UCU lecturers’ union, added: “It is vital for our Scottish higher education system that the state continues to invest, instead of looking at ways to squeeze more money out of students.””
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We are committed to protecting the quality of our universities. However, Scotland’s resources will be cut by £1.3bn next year.”
Analysis Cost of retaining Scotland’s academic reputation must be met
By Andrew Denholm, Education Correspondent
University principals today put on public record the view many have long held in private -- that future funding of higher education is untenable without more money from graduates.
The rationale is a simple one: that university education benefits graduates throughout their lives through higher salaries and it is therefore fair for them to help pay for the system.
The Universities Scotland document, Towards A Scottish Solution, does not outline a specific form of graduate contribution, such as a graduate tax, but rather states the principles that should underpin such a policy.
These are that university education should remain free at the point of entry, that the contribution should not discourage participation, that some of the money raised should be spent on student support and that it should be progressive -- with those on higher incomes after graduation paying more.
While support for such a new funding stream has been building for years, there are several key factors that have made the pronouncement so important.
Last week, Vince Cable, the UK Business Secretary, said the cap on up-front tuition fees in England could double to £7000, allowing universities there to raise significant additional sums. That puts Scottish universities at a competitive disadvantage because they will find it harder to offer competitive salaries to attract the best academics.
That, in turn, could damage their reputation, leading to a downward spiral where they attract fewer research grants and less-able students.
However, of even greater significance are the unprecedented cuts to public funding that are about to be ushered in.
Universities Scotland has issued a dire warning over the impact of the predicted cuts, outlining course cuts, substantial job losses, fewer student places and an erosion in their ability to attract overseas students who pay lucrative fees and bring international expertise.
Towards A Scottish Solution states that universities are already making their own contribution by setting efficiency saving targets of £83 million this year and increasing “entrepreneurial funding” through overseas students and philanthropic giving.
But the document states: “Entrepreneurial funding sources cannot fill a funding gap of the scale envisaged.
“We therefore strongly support … the urgency of building a means of securing a contribution from the graduate beneficiaries of higher education.”
In addition, Universities Scotland has outlined structural changes to higher education that could also have far-reaching consequences for students.
The document ushers in the prospect of even greater collaboration between universities -- in some cases up to the point of merger -- as well as the potential for rationalising provision to prevent duplication, which would essentially lead to greater specialisation.
Critically, it also examines the potential for change to the four-year degree in Scotland, which has always been championed as an international gold standard.
Universities Scotland believes shortening degree courses to three years would amount to “dumbing down”.