UNION bosses have warned that universities may have to cut the number of students they offer places to as institutions grapple with the economic impact of the pandemic.

The latest research has revealed the stark prospect of six universities potentially being left with less than two months of cash reserves by the end of the year and borrowing by all institutions set to soar to £1.7 billion.

The University and College Union (UCU) has pointed to analysis by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the body in charge of higher education finance, which warns that “given the likelihood of continuing financial pressures”, officials “should address the sustainability of returning to pre-Covid student numbers”, while adding that “we may also wish to explore the option of reducing students numbers and maintaining current levels of funding”.

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Mary Senior, Scotland official for the UCU, has highlighted a “real terms drop in Scottish Government funding” to universities.

She added: “In the midst of the pandemic, and with a crisis-driven recession looming, it is alarming that the SFC report appears to float the suggestion of a reduction in student numbers.

“We know that in a recession, applications for access to university increases, and would expect to see an increase in demand for full-time places in higher education as students’ options in the jobs market become less favourable and people look to upskill and retrain.”

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Ms Senior added that following “the increase in student numbers as a result of the summer 2020 exam results policy changes” after the Scottish Government was forced to halt thousands of students being downgraded after controversial moderation by the SQA, “it would be bizarre for the Scottish Government to be reducing student numbers at a time when it should be looking to increase opportunities”.

She added: “Reducing student numbers may also leave universities open to liabilities where they have agreements with external, for profit providers – for example nomination agreements with private student accommodation providers.”

The sector has raised concerns over the amount of funding the Scottish Government provides per student.

In evidence to MSPs on Holyrood’s Education Committee, Universities Scotland, the umbrella organisation for Scotland’s universities, has called for “rapid progress” towards “sustainable funding” for Scottish-based students, adding that “if that cannot be achieved in one leap, we look at least for complete reversal of the £750 per student real terms erosion in funding since 2014/15”.

It is feared that the exams fiasco this summer could have implications for universities for the next five or six years as the thousands of adjusted grades, even for S5 exams, means every student is entitled to funding during their undergraduate degree.

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The university sector’s debt has increased from £437 million in 2014/15 to £1.65bn at the end of 2018/19.

A Universities Scotland spokeswoman said: “There are major questions to be answered about the availability and volume of funded places at university as universities look to juggle the change in SQA grades and increased numbers of qualified applicants in the short-term, very strong demand from all age groups and the policy objectives of an education-led recovery in the medium to long-term.

“But there’s another fundamental question and that’s how much public funding will be invested in each student place at university? Even before the pandemic, there was £750 less public money invested in every Scottish student compared to five years ago.

"Cutting places without solving the level of funding per person wouldn’t help access, opportunity, Scotland’s recovery or university finances.”

Scottish Labour has previously accused the Scottish Government of defunding university students – pointing to statistics showing the SNP now spends £1,089 less per student on teaching in universities than when the party came to power in 2007.

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The party’s education spokesperson, Iain Gray said: “It would be a travesty if the Scottish Government were to cut student numbers to save money as the SFC suggests they consider.

“We should be raising the student cap to improve opportunities not even thinking about reducing it.

“What’s more, it is time the Scottish Government fully funded learning for every Scottish student instead of only part funding places and then demanding the credit for free tuition.”

The Scottish Government said it has invested more than £1 billion into higher education for the eighth straight year, with a spokesperson adding that it has “provided a significant level of financial support for our colleges and universities through this unprecedented and difficult time”.