It's feared Scottish Government cuts to the budget for further and higher education could push vulnerable students out of courses, exacerbate depopulation in rural areas and push rents higher across the central belt, with students already facing issues with homelessness and mental health.

Holyrood's budget for 2024-25 includes £100m of cuts to colleges and universities which already face tight budgets.

The budget of the Scottish Funding Council, which distributes grants to colleges and universities, was cut by £107.4m which equates to 5.3% before inflation.

NUS Scotland released the report Broke Students, Broken System in February of this year detailing a number of concerns around funding, student finance, housing, transport and mental health.

The most recent research by the union found that 12% of students in Scotland have experienced homelessness during their studies, a higher rate than the general population.

A survey carried out late last year at the University of Stirling found that 15% of respondents had, at some point during their studies, had no fixed residence or address.

The figures are worse for international students, who pay high fees to attend.

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A 2023 survey of more than 5,300 college and university students found 21% of international students had experienced homelessness, 49% had skipped a meal and 42% had gone without heating.

Under the terms of a student visa, international students are forbidden from working more than 20 hours per week if studying at degree level, or 10 hours per week if their course is below degree level.

The issues are not limited to the student body, however. Rural areas are already facing issues with depopulation, in part caused by the rise of second homes and Airbnb properties, which also places the Gaelic language under threat.

Eliot Wooding-Sherwin, a student at the University of Stirling who is running to be NUS Scotland president says: "I was speaking to some students in the Highlands and Islands and they are facing an issue with just the lack of housing.

“They’ve got something like 3,000 students and the university provides something like 30 bedrooms.

The Herald: Eliot Wooding-Sherwin of NUS ScotlandEliot Wooding-Sherwin of NUS Scotland (Image: Supplied)

“So you’ve obviously got thousands of students going into the towns at a time where landlords are moving towards Airbnb so there’s just less accommodation for them.

“They used to have a list of around 40 private landlords that they would send students to, and this year that’s gone down to three because everyone has moved toward Airbnb.

"Quite often students are viewed as quite separate from the rest of the population, almost like a separate class of people, but the issues that we’re facing are very much inter-linked in terms of the cost of living.

“I’ve spoken to students who have exactly that problem, a lot of local people feel very pushed out of the area because costs are going up and it feels like the area is tailored to these students.

“But the students can’t afford the accommodation either, so you’ve got a lot of local areas being destroyed in order to build more student accommodation which the students can’t afford anyway."

The Herald: Plans for new student housing, Glasgow


In the central belt complaints are often raised about the number of new developments given over to student housing.

Three new student housing developments have been approved in Glasgow in recent months, with demand far outstripping supply.

The number of students attending universities in Scotland continues to rise, but the establishments are financially incentivised to expand provision for non-Scottish students.

Tuition fees for Scottish students are paid by the government, with the Scottish Funding Council allocating each a number of ‘funded places’, placing an effective cap on the number they can recruit.

Universities can charge up to £9,250 per year for students from the rest of the UK and more for international students, with no cap on the number they can recruit.

At the University of Glasgow the number of students rose from 24,377 in the 2013-14 term to 35,512 for 2022-23. The number of those based in Scotland rose from 14,196 to 16,399 (15.5185%), while the number from the rest of the UK went from 2,425 to 3,663 (up 51.0515%).

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Following Britain's exit from the European Union, students from the bloc are required to pay fees starting from the 2021-22 term.

In 2013-14 there were 3,113 EU students at the University of Glasgow, which had fallen to 2,145 by 2022-23, a 31% decrease. However, the number of international students rose to 13,305 from 4,643 over the same period which represents a rise of 186.56%.

By far the biggest contingent of international students are from China (7,455) followed by the United States (1,280) and India (1,202).

The latest figures for the country as a whole show that while the number of Scottish domiciled students rose 1.6% between 2020-21 and 2021-22, the number of students from the rest of the UK rose 3.5% and non-EU students saw a 37.1% increase. The number of EU domiciled students fell 16.6%.

There are, however, clear benefits to having international students complete their education in Scotland.

A 2023 report by Universities UK International found that international students in the 2021/22 academic year contributed £41.9 billion to the UK economy, around 10 times more than their estimated impact on public services of £4.4bn.

Glasgow was singled out as receiving the greatest economic benefit from international students, calculated at £292 million, which is equivalent to £2,720 per member of the resident population.

However, an abundance of student housing being constructed and inflationary pressures on rents can cause tension.

Mr Wooding-Sherwin said: "Universities and colleges are bringing in more students because they’re having their funding cut, so the way they deal with that is increasing their intake because that’s where they can get the money from.

The Herald: Eliot Wooding-Sherwin of NUS ScotlandEliot Wooding-Sherwin of NUS Scotland (Image: Supplied)

“Universities are obviously very big on pushing for international students and rest of UK students because they’re the people they can charge.

“At Stirling University when I started there were 14,000 students, I’m now in my final year and there are 18,000 students.

“The city of Stirling is quite a small area, if you’re increasing student numbers by around 4,000 it’ll have a massive knock-on effect in the private rental sector.

“I’m not sure on the exact figures in other places but you essentially have a similar situation where these institutions are bringing in more students because they’re feeling the lack of funding and there just isn’t room for us.

“The other issue is that costs are rising. Some campuses don’t have their own accommodation although most, even college campuses, do.

“Typically year-on-year the costs for those places will go up, so if you look at a place like Edinburgh, Edinburgh University is the second biggest landlord in the city – so if Edinburgh University is putting their accommodation prices up then it’ll have an effect on the private sector as well, which affects more than just the students."

Aditi Jehangir, Secretary for Living Rent said: "Universities that oversubscribe their courses and hike up rents in their accommodation are giving no thought to the impact that this has on the cities that they are in. 

"Universities know how many students they can fit into their accommodation and yet they continue to oversubscribe their courses with no thought about where students might live. In oversubscribing their courses, universities are failing to recognise how they impact the housing crisis in their cities. The increase in demand in cities whose housing is at breaking point is pushing up prices and forcing many students and residents out.

"The cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow have seen rents increase faster than anywhere else in Scotland over the last year and it is getting worse. If the universities continue to push the rent up in their accommodation, this not only prices many students out, but it also forces rent in the area up, leaving students and residents struggling to find affordable homes. 

"Universities need to consider their duty of care to students and their responsibility to the city. We need rent controls to bring rents down and they need to apply to student housing."

College cuts

The Scottish Government has previously been criticised for declaring its desire to end poverty while cutting promised funding to college courses, overwhelmingly attended by students from poorer backgrounds.

According to Colleges Scotland, 24% of entrants to higher education courses in colleges are from the 20% most deprived areas of Scotland, of whom 46% went on to university after graduating.

The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton accused Holyrood of presiding over the "quiet death of further education", after a pledge to deliver £26m - £1m per college - in the 2023-24 budget was reversed.

Under the new budget the net college resource budget is to fall by over 8%.

Sher Khalid-Ali, who studied at New College Lanarkshire before going on to university said: "It’s not an exaggeration to say college changed not only my life, but the trajectory of my daughter's.

The Herald: Sher Khalid-Ali and Kimberley Rose at New College Lanarkshire in CumbernauldSher Khalid-Ali and Kimberley Rose at New College Lanarkshire in Cumbernauld (Image: Gordon Terris)

"Further education has given me the confidence to aim for my goals and the ability to achieve them. Without college I don’t know where I’d be now, but it certainly wouldn’t be successfully working my way towards a university degree.

"I will be eternally grateful to the lecturers who showed me what’s possible in life. Further education is a direct route from poverty to success for working class adults and it’s imperative that it’s funded accordingly."

Members of the EIS-FELA union representing college lecturers remain in dispute with College Employers Scotland over a pay rise they say they should have received in August 2022, with no agreement yet found.

General secretary Andrea Bradley said: “It should be a matter of deep shame to both college employers and the Scottish Government that the country’s hard-working and dedicated college lecturers are still waiting for a fair pay offer, a year and half after they should have had their pay increase settled.”

Gavin Donoghue, Director of College Employers Scotland, said: “Despite unprecedented financial pressures, colleges have put forward the substantial offer of a £5,000 consolidated pay rise for all staff over three academic years. If accepted by trade unions, the offer would keep college lecturers in Scotland as the UK’s best paid. For support staff, the same offer would mean an average pay rise of nearly 16% from September this year.”

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Mental health

Another issue highlighted by the Broke Students, Broken System report is mental health.

Research from the Mental Health Foundation in 2022 found that, in a sample of 15,000 students, 74% had reported low wellbeing and 45% said they had experienced a serious psychological issue they felt needed professional help.

Almost a fifth (19.6%) of students reported that they had either suicidal thoughts or attempted to kill themselves in the last six months.

While most universities have in-house counselling services these are often stretched, while many colleges have none at all.

That can lead to students seeking treatment on the NHS, which is already stretched.

Mr Wooding-Sherwin said: "Everyone knows how bad the waiting times are.

“If you don’t have any other option I suppose that’s what you’ll do, but I get mental health support from the NHS and I think I was on the waiting list for two years which is quite short compared to some other people."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is taking strong action to support students through the cost of living crisis with an enhanced student support offering which ensures people receive the support they need to attend university.  Along with our firm commitment to free tuition, this is ensuring access to university in Scotland remains based on the ability to learn and not the ability to pay.

“That is why we are seeing a record number of young Scottish students being accepted to our universities, a record numbers of full-time first degree entrants coming from our most deprived communities and why Scotland has the lowest student debt levels in the UK, almost three times lower than in England.

“Recently announced measures will provide support for students over the Summer months, following the recent £2,400 increase to the annual support package which sees funding for undergraduate students from the lowest income households rise up to £11,400.”