THEY are one of Scotland’s international success stories, attracting students and research talent from across the globe.

But fears are growing that universities and colleges are “rushing” to make job cuts in anticipation of a disastrous double whammy from the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit.

The EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union, said it was talking to HeriotWatt and Edinburgh Napier universities about possible redundancies, while Inverness College UHI has announced a cost-cutting drive, including a voluntary severance scheme, in a bid to make around £800,000 in staff savings before June 2021.

The developments are likely to spark disquiet that there could soon be similar moves at other institutions north of the Border.

It comes as Covid-19 and Britain’s departure from the EU threaten to hit revenue across the higher and further education sectors.

Worries are mounting that student recruitment, particularly from the rest of the UK and overseas, will be badly affected. Future access to European funding and research networks is already a concern.

There is also increasing anxiety over the impact of possible retaliatory sanctions by China amid escalating tensions between London and Beijing.

Income streams at Edinburgh and Glasgow universities are thought to be particularly vulnerable if the country’s government decides to stop students heading to the UK.

David Belsey, Assistant Secretary at the EIS, said: “We are deeply concerned about any redundancies and especially concerned when these seem to come out of thin air with an immediate focus on cutting staff without really exploring with us other options in order to make savings.

“We seek to ensure that colleges and universities carry out meaningful collective consultation on avoiding redundancies... in order to avoid any rush to cut staff before properly understanding the full consequences of Brexit or the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The EIS does not understand why Napier University is moving so quickly in what is potentially a large redundancy pool in a relatively small university, and we are seeking to establish through consultation the reasons behind that. Heriot-Watt is looking at potential redundancies too, although they seem to be looking more carefully into how compulsory redundancies may be avoided.

“We are not clear at the moment whether the proposed staffing cuts at Inverness College are down to existing underlying funding issues or whether it’s a consequence of the college anticipating budget cuts because of Covid.”

Mr Belsey added: “The EIS believes that there will be an increased demand in both universities and colleges in terms of people wishing to re-skill and up-skill to maintain their employment or to seek new jobs - and the challenge is to make sure that there’s sufficient capacity across both sectors.”

A spokesman for Edinburgh Napier University said higher education institutions were “facing considerable challenges and serious shortfalls in their income as the effects of Covid-19 impact finances”.

He added that his institution had already taken “significant steps” to mitigate a predicted deficit next year and ensure its long-term sustainability.

“We now need to look at our staffing costs, which represent the majority of our expenditure,” he said.

"This will be done in a way that maintains our academic excellence and ensures we will continue to offer an excellent Edinburgh Napier student experience.

“We have been working closely with our TU reps and colleagues in exploring all possible options to reduce the impact on staff numbers as much as possible. So far those discussions have been positive and have enabled us to reduce the initial forecasted number from 70 to under 50 roles – only five of which are academic positions – and, because of this progress, we have committed to delay any exits until September.  

"Having discussed voluntary severance we are also awaiting union proposals on an acceptable scheme.”

A spokesman for Heriot-Watt University said: “This is challenging time for the Further and Higher Education sector, and our priority is to make careful, measured financial decisions that will ensure we can provide our students with the very best environment, state-of-the-art facilities and access to influential industry partners in support of their learning – now and in the future. 

“Early discussions have taken place between the University and trade unions as we seek to minimise the impact on our staff whilst identifying a range of possible cost savings. With options still being considered, our consultations will continue. Colleagues will be first to be briefed as and when decisions are made.”

The spokesman added: “Like many universities, welcoming international students is an important part of enriching our community and we continue to monitor closely the relationship between the UK and China.”

Professor Chris O’Neil, Principal of Inverness College UHI, said the college and university sectors in Scotland continued to face “significant challenges in an environment of rising costs and a real terms decline in core income”. 

He added: "An increase in staff pay and employers’ pension contributions, together with the rising costs of utilities and services, have all contributed to the financial pressures across the sector. The situation has been exacerbated by a declining youth demographic across the country and an overall drop in student numbers nationally, which has caused challenges for our higher education provision, in particular. The impact of Covid-19 only serves to heighten an already precarious financial environment, with both Colleges Scotland and Universities Scotland forecasting deficits of millions of pounds for the sectors.

“It is therefore essential we act to now to achieve financial stability and ensure a sustainable structure for the future, which continues to provide an excellent student experience and the education and training needs of the region’s economy as it recovers from this public health crisis. We recognise this is a particularly challenging time for everyone and we are committed to working with our staff to achieve these savings in a way that minimises impact on them and our students. Inverness College UHI continues to be one of the leading large colleges in Scotland, with student success rates and satisfaction rates amongst the highest in the country. Our priority remains delivering an excellent student experience and positive outcomes for all our learners.

“We are committed to avoiding compulsory redundancies, wherever possible, and have been working very closely with our trade unions, managers and staff to proactively explore all alternatives.”

University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said: “This is an uncertain time for universities and worrying for many staff and students. There’s real uncertainty and the expected drop in international student numbers will be tough for many universities. 

"Universities need to take a jobs first approach to keep workers in employment, and protect the education and development of future staff. 

"We also need the Scottish and UK governments to step up and guarantee the funding universities need to get through this crisis. Universities’ priority must be their staff and students, including the army of fixed-term and hourly-paid staff who contribute so much to the learning and teaching in our institutions.”

Raj Jethwa, Chief Executive at the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said: "Universities are working hard to minimise the impact on jobs in a climate of great economic and business uncertainty.

"That is why UCEA has reluctantly proposed a pay freeze for 2020-21. This will go some way towards helping Scottish higher education institutions in their efforts to plan and budget for the 2020-21 academic year.

"Although it is too soon to predict the full impact of Covid-19, we remain deeply concerned about the anticipated financial shortfall facing our sector. UCEA and our member universities in Scotland remain committed to working with the trade unions to address the uncertainties and anxieties ahead.

“We know that our universities are attractive to students around the world as they will receive a top class education and warm welcome here in Scotland."

On the continued situation with Brexit & what it means for higher education, a spokeswoman for Universities Scotland said: “The UK is leaving the EU but UK universities are determined to maintain close and mutually beneficial links with universities across Europe. This has been, and always will be, important to the quality of our teaching and research.

"We’re keen to see the UK Government explore all options for alternative routes through which research networks and partnerships can thrive. The precise mechanisms for the UK’s continued collaboration are still being worked out in Brexit negotiations.

"It doesn’t help universities at all to have this level of uncertainty continue, this late into proceedings. Brexit uncertainty, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, really has created a highly unpredictable future for higher education to navigate.”

Commenting on the possible impact of UK-China tensions, she added: "Whilst the diverse mix of students from around the world on our campuses will vary from year to year due to a range of factors, studying alongside people from other countries is of proven benefit and should always be valued.”

Shona Struthers, Chief Executive of Colleges Scotland, said: “The college sector was facing significant financial challenges even before COVID-19, and these pressures are undoubtedly increasing because of the pandemic’s impact.

“We are working with the Scottish Government and its agencies to try and find positive solutions to the sector’s financial challenges. Any proposals from colleges which potentially affect their respective staff would involve consultation and working with the trade unions at those individual institutions.

“The college sector and its staff have a critical role in helping Scotland’s social and economic recovery through upskilling and reskilling the workforce, providing people with valuable employability skills, and assisting specific economic sectors which have been badly affected by COVID-19.”

Richard Lochhead, Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, said: “We know our universities and colleges face significant challenges as a result of the pandemic and we are working closely with them to mitigate the effects of the crisis. We expect them to work together with trades unions and make every effort to protect jobs.

“On 9 July, I announced our Further and Higher Education Sustainability Plan. This highlighted the steps we have taken to support higher education, including allocating £75 million to protect world-leading research, £10 million for estates development, the development of an International Student Action Plan, an additional £5 million across FE and HE student support and early access to £11.4 million of HE Hardship Funds.”