Should a university be fined if it recruits too many students?
It depends who you ask, but the universities themselves have always been resistant to the idea and in The Herald today, Universities Scotland, the body which represents principals, has called for a relaxation of the fines so they can recruit more students without incurring any financial penalty.
It is perfectly understandable of Universities Scotland to adopt such a position. The organisation's function is to represent, and fight for, the university sector and when student places are publicly funded, more students means more money at a time when budgets are under considerable strain.
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The Scottish Government has to take a more balanced approach. On the one hand, it should be encouraging more students to go to university, particularly from deprived backgrounds and particularly in subjects such as science where graduates can contribute significantly to Scotland's economic future.
However, the Government also has to work with finite budgets and show restraint with the public purse. In an ideal world, taxpayers would fund as many students as wanted to go to university, but there has to be realism in the administration of the university sector. The fines, which are enforced by the Scottish Funding Council, are part of such realism.
To some extent, the Government has succeeded in striking the right balance between these factors. Aware that there is a growing demand for university education, it has increased the number of publicy-funded places in recent years. It also won praise for removing the restrictions on the number of places that could be offered in the Stem subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, although it also attracted criticism for re-imposing them in due course.
Scotland's universities believe the Government could go much further in this area and facilitate, rather than resist, a growth in student numbers. Alastair Sim, the director of Universities Scotland, says the fact Scottish applicants have increased for the third year in a row demonstrates what a high demand there is for higher education among Scots and he believes the penalties for over-recruiting should be lifted between now and the summer to help universities meet that need.
There is some merit in this argument, particularly as the economy continues to recover and begins to demand more skilled graduates. Fining universities for responding to the demand for places also carries the risk of being counter-productive and making the financial difficulties of some universities even worse.
However, any relaxation of the fines also carries a cost for the Scottish Government, which has to keep a control on how much it pays for supporting students. This means scrapping the financial penalties is not an option, but the Scottish Government should also keep them under constant review. The penalties are there as a means of controlling public expenditure, but it is just as important that they do not stifle the ambition to ensure as many young people as possible have the chance to go to university.