SCOTLAND’s universities should transform the way they teach students and shift towards placing more importance on those training to become essential workers with their qualifications often classed by employers as “low-value degrees”, an economist has suggested.

Universities across Scotland are facing deep financial scars as they emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, with many suffering from a reliance on fees paid by overseas students to balance the books.

Richard Lochhead, the Universities Minister, has stressed that universities must adapt to play their part in the new normal – a stance being embraced by the higher education institutions. But questions remain over whether universities will overhaul how they provide higher education and what the sector will continue to prioritise.

The pro-vice-chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University, Professor Cam Donaldson, has suggested that higher education institutions and industries that take on graduates should place more value on qualifications for essential workers such as nurses – with the importance being reinforced with the role they are playing in the battle against coronavirus.

Professor Donaldson has claimed that before the pandemic, “high value was attached to courses producing the biggest earners”, amid a “crude human capital approach” over what is valuable in education.

He said: “We see value resulting from investing in people as individual units of production, much like investing in machinery and technology.

“Is this really how we view the value of education, whereby a ‘low-value’ degree is one that fails to produce sufficient ‘return on investment’ in terms of such earnings gained?”

He added that “the same might apply to so-called low-value degrees – say, in nursing” compared to “higher-value degrees in medicine”.

Donaldson said “there are particular reasons why the price or wage for nurses is less than that for medical doctors, but surely that does not diminish either their value to society nor, therefore, the value of their degrees”.

He added: “The same logic applies to other degrees offered by universities, such as social work or for allied health professions, which may not pay as much as law or finance.

“One of the many things laid bare by Covid-19 is that essential workers are not defined by what they earn – even if they should actually be paid more.”

Universities have stressed that the industry will need to examine attitudes over what constitutes success and potentially overhaul how graduates are valued.

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said: “If the pandemic has told us anything it’s that we need to reprioritise what we value – salary is not a measure of a person’s worth or what they contribute.

“Policy agendas that fixate on graduate salaries alone are always going to value the wrong thing and undercut a lot of real value added in our society and economy.

"Graduate nurses are a great example but there are many other graduate careers in the public and third sectors, in the creative industries and in start-up companies, which may not command high salaries but are integral to our society, fuel our economy and give expression of who we are as a country.”

He added: “A degree offers graduates a lifetime salary premium but it also offers a set of highly transferrable skills which is often as in-demand from employers as the degree subject. Right now, that’s where our economy and society gets added value from its graduate workforce – their self-direction, ability to adapt, problem-solve, to respond creatively to much-changed circumstances and, if necessary, the ability to pivot careers entirely. That is not reducible into a simple return-on-investment figure but it counts for so much.”

A body representing nurses in Scotland has stressed that the Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated even more clearly that salary should not be a benchmark of someone’s value to society.

Theresa Fyffe, director of the Royal College of Nursing Scotland, said: “The value of nursing staff has, in modern times, never been more apparent. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated to politicians and the general public how important the skills, clinical expertise and professionalism of nursing staff is to our health and care system and the lives of people across Scotland.

“Cam Donaldson’s assessment that essential workers are not defined by what they earn has never been more evident. The RCN will make sure that no government forgets the professionalism demonstrated by all nursing staff during this pandemic and before it.”