THIS is a worrying and uncertain time for staff and students in Scotland’s universities.

The Covid-19 pandemic crisis is having an unprecedented impact on the sector, where the lockdown, restrictions on travel, and the socially distanced and virtual ways of working for the foreseeable future may have catastrophic funding implications.

Our universities are world-renowned, and attract students from around the globe to come to live and study in Scotland.

This has been a great strength, and the international student tuition fee income has become vital to enable universities to deliver the teaching, knowledge exchange and research they do so successfully, particularly when teaching budgets have been underfunded for some time.

The pandemic and the emergency measures required bring so much uncertainty as to whether new students from Scotland, the rest of the UK, and the wider world, will turn up in September for the new academic year.

These students’ decisions have financial implications for institutions, as to whether those who pay tuition fees will be bringing that income to universities this year.

Forecasts vary, with estimates ranging between a £251 million loss of income for the sector at the lower end, to the Scottish Funding Council’s worst-case scenario estimate of an operating deficit of £651m in 2020/21.  

Whatever the reality, our universities need help to get through the coming period, not least because they are the drivers of economic growth, and so many are vital employers and stakeholders in their local economies.

UCU’s research carried out at the start of the crisis by London Economics estimated a 47 per cent decrease in the number of international students coming to Scotland, meaning just under 9,500 fewer first-year international student enrolments in the coming academic year. The London Economics report estimates that this, along with the other effects of the current crisis, will lead to a 
£251m financial hole in the sector for the year 2020/21.

We know universities are already taking steps to make cuts. This includes not renewing the army of fixed term and hourly paid staff who deliver vital teaching and tutoring to undergraduates. Staff are being asked to endure pay and increment freezes, as well as other reductions to their terms and conditions.

A number of universities are also contemplating significant job losses. UCU will always look to protect jobs and vigorously oppose compulsory redundancies.  

READ MORE: Scottish universities at risk of being wiped out by Covid-19 crisis , experts warn 

The perilous financial situation is why we launched our Fund The Future campaign calling on government to support universities through this difficult time.

But this is more than simply a trade union looking to protect its members’ jobs. Universities are not seeking special treatment or additional funding simply for the sake of it. Rather we need to protect the sector because universities have an essential role in driving the country out of crisis.

First, and probably of most importance at the present, is the specific role of higher education in fighting the virus, providing labs for research and testing, finding possible cures and treatment for those infected and developing vaccines, protective equipment, and other public health strategies.  

Similarly, it is many of our universities that are educating the nursing staff, health care professionals, doctors and consultants who work in the NHS day in and day out. The inspirational reports of nurses and doctors leaving their studies early 
to join the fight against Covid-19 and save lives is testament both to their personal dedication, but also to the staff in our universities who have equipped them for the job they now do. 

Equally important is the role that universities play in their communities.  Universities are major employers in their town or city and offer decent, skilled employment that brings people to live and contribute to local economies.

University research, and the critical thinking graduates they produce, helps us to understand the world in which we live. At a time where fake news, misinformation and polarisation is rife, we should be valuing the role of universities to inform, educate and empower.

The final element of why government help is required is that higher education is a key driver of economic recovery as the country comes out of the current crisis. From nurturing entrepreneurial skills, spin-off companies and SMEs, research and development, and a supply of highly skilled graduates entering the jobs market, universities are a key player in building the economy back from the coronavirus recession.  Simply put, there is no road to recovery that does not involve a well-resourced higher education sector.

We welcome the Scottish Government’s £75million of new money for research in universities along with its commitment to maintaining free tuition.

Research carried out among Scottish domiciled university applicants for UCU has shown that their attitudes towards deferral, and in some cases, going into higher education at all, is substantially dependant on not having to pay tuition fees.

The UK Government’s support to the sector thus far has been to bring forward money for research, offer loans and suggest it will bail out institutions on the brink of failure. This response is underwhelming and fails to acknowledge the key role higher education plays in our economy and society.

The shortfall in teaching funding in universities in Scotland has not yet been addressed, and will be exacerbated by any loss of international student fee income.    

We need a support package from both Scottish and UK governments that properly underwrite the sector and secures the future for our institutions and the staff and students who make them world class.  

Mary Senior is Scotland Official of the University and College Union.