Some 1200 fewer places will be available to Scottish students next year under the budget proposals, the deputy first minister and finance secretary has revealed.

Shona Robison gave the figure as she appeared in front of Holyrood finance committee this morning to be quizzed on the budget amid concerns the final reduction in places could be much higher.

Following newspaper reports today, Labour MSP Michael Marra pointed to a reduction of funding of £28.5 million in resource funding to universities next year and asked Ms Robison how many university places for first year Scottish students the government were going to cut.

She said media discussion had centred around 1200 places. 

The Herald: Deputy first minister and finance secretary Shona Robison appeared before Holyrood's finance committee today. Photo PA.

The finance secretary said these 1200 places were created during the pandemic when the Scottish Government introduced additional university provision for Scottish students in wake of improved school leaving grades during the pandemic.

"If you go back to the origins of this, essentially during Covid, due to the assessment processes put in place for assessing Highers. At the time of Covid, if you remember, there became a different process of continual assessment and therefore there was a big spike in those who were gaining university entrance.

READ MORE: University places for Scots set to be slashed under budget plans

"We used some of the Covid monies to fund those additional 1200 places for universities in order to address that spike. We've maintained those places for two years without the Covid funding available,  that Covid funding ended from the UK Government, and we managed to keep those places going for two years, but the position is not a sustainable one. So that spike in places due to Covid is going to have to return to the pre Covid levels of university places."

It is not clear whether further university places for Scottish students, in addition to the 1200 referred to by Ms Robison, will be axed.

Michael Marra, a Scottish Labour MSP, told the committee the £28.5 million being cut in the budget would be the equivalent of a reduction of about 3,800 student places. This total was calculated by dividing the amount of budget savings by the £7,558 that the Scottish government said it provided to educate students.

Pressed by Mr Marra if as many as 3800 places could be cut the finance secretary said that was not a number she was "familiar with".

READ MORE: Scottish councils facing 'unprecedented financial pressures'

She added that the Scottish Funding Council, which distributes funding to universities, is still having discussions with the university sector around the number of places that will be available. 

Ms Robison was later in the committee pressed by Scottish Conservative MSP Liz Smith for details on the numbers of figures of university places to go.

She again confirmed the loss of 1200 places and repeated that discussions were still ongoing with the Scottish Funding Council.

Tuition is free for people who have lived in Scotland for three years prior to starting their course but it relies on money from the Scottish Government.

The 1200 reduction in places will be a blow to Scottish young people wishing to study in Scotland and who will now face more competition for places.

Many Scots have already been forced to study elsewhere in the UK, where they have to pay fees, after being unable to get into a Scottish university because of a cap on the numbers of home students.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “UCU already had major concerns at the real-terms cuts to university funding in the 2024 draft budget, but the suggestion of plans to cut the number of Scottish students able to study at Scotland’s universities is as alarming as it is shocking.   

"We’re calling on the Scottish Parliament to interrogate these proposals, and to ensure that Scottish students are able to access a university education which is properly funded.”

Opposition politicians criticised the cut.

Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary, Liam Kerr MSP said: “The SNP’s confirmation that 1200 fewer university places will be available to Scottish students is a betrayal of our young people.

“To cut such a significant number of places is a hammer blow for their future opportunities and also means our universities will miss out on gaining talented students.

“These cuts are the last thing those seeking entry to Scotland’s universities needed given the SNP had already imposed an arbitrary cap on student places for Scots.

“This will only lead to unnecessarily fierce competition and means many will be left with no option but to study outside of Scotland.

“The Scottish Government must urgently explain why universities and students are bearing the brunt of the its financial incompetence, especially when so much money has been wasted on pet projects.”

Scottish Labour Finance spokesperson Michael Marra said: “The Deputy First Minister’s lacklustre appearance before finance committee this morning was a new low from this chaotic government and its shambolic budget.

“Despite the Government’s own budget document outlining a plan to reduce first year university places, the Deputy First Minister could not say how many places would be cut.

“The fact is that this is an SNP government mired in incompetence and economic illiteracy that is simply making it up as they go along.

“The ineptitude of this SNP Government has serious consequences for people’s lives and livelihoods. Every day this SNP-Green government reaches a new low. For the sake of our country, they need to get a grip.”

The revelation will put pressure on Jenny Gilruth, the education secretary, when she gives evidence to Holyrood’s education committee on Wednesday about the budget.

Economists last week criticised the planned cuts to university and college funding saying investing in skills was important for economic growth.

João Sousa, of the Fraser of Allander Institute at Strathclyde University, told Holyrood's finance committee of his surprise at the cuts to college and university teaching.

Professor David Bell, of Stirling University, told the committee: "I think back to things such as the national strategy for economic transformation and how the budget links up to that. It is not very clear to me how it does."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Funding to support around 1,200 additional places introduced in response to Covid and SQA grading during that period has been removed as part of the 2024-25 draft budget.

"This funding and these places were always designed to be a temporary response to the pandemic and numbers will now return to pre-Covid levels. The impact on individual institutions will be determined by the Scottish Funding Council through their normal allocation process, as has always been the case.

“While this is the most challenging budget to be delivered under devolution, the 24-25 Budget still allocated nearly £2 billion to universities and colleges – supporting their delivery of high quality education, training and research.

“Our student support offering and policy on free tuition supports around 120,000 students every year and we have seen record numbers of full-time first degree entrants to universities coming from the most deprived communities in Scotland.”