By Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal of the University of Glasgow
As we begin a national conversation about how we emerge from lockdown, the question of what our economy and society will look like is playing on many minds in Scotland and beyond. With the sobering report by the Chief Economic Adviser suggesting that Scottish GDP could drop by as much as a third due to the COVID-19 crisis, it is abundantly clear that things will not simply return to normal – and a huge, collective national effort will be required to rebuild our economy.
The contribution that universities make will be absolutely crucial to that recovery. Universities don’t just deliver teaching and research. They are major drivers of the economy – with the University of Glasgow alone contributing over £1.5bn in economic output.
Universities are far from being immune to the financial impacts of the crisis. Indeed, there is every chance, as the Office for Budget Responsibility’s figures show, that higher education could be one of the sectors which suffers most. Analysis by Universities UK suggests that the sector should be braced for revenue losses of several billion pounds, and that there is a significant risk that some institutions across the UK will not survive at all.
It is clear then that if we are to see our universities play the role we know they are capable of in the national economic recovery, there will need to be an increase in public investment. It is deeply heartening that the First Minister has confirmed that all additional money delivered by the UK Treasury through the Barnett formula – stemming from extra investment in the sector south of the border – would be earmarked for higher education. Indeed, there is widespread recognition from the UK Government of the need for significant support for the sector.
None of this though is to say that governments north or south of the border should hand universities a blank cheque to temporarily plug financial gaps across institutions.
The quest for the ‘new normal’ must extend to universities too. For universities as with every other sector, there is no longer a status quo – and any calls for additional public funding need to make a virtue of this fact. We require new investment not to maintain old standards but to react and reform in the face of global change.
We need to demonstrate a willingness to change in order to ensure we are best able to make a success of the new situation we are going to find ourselves in, and align ourselves even more closely with societal need. But we also need to be clear that the new success we seek isn’t just for our own sector – it is for Scotland, and our universities are only part of that.
This of course won’t entail doing everything differently. In many cases, it will simply mean building on existing success. For example, our progress on Widening Participation in recent years has been extraordinary , with 15.9% of Scottish domiciled entrants now coming from SIMD20 backgrounds – but it must go further, ensuring every young person in Scotland is ensured of the opportunity of a university education regardless of their economic background.
But we should also help society confront new challenges. Universities UK have called for an additional investment in research. This could be tied to research themes our post-COVID-19 society needs. A COVID-19 economic downturn which risks rivalling the Great Depression will also scar the labour market, as previous deep recessions such as the early 1980s have done. As our young people enter what is going to be a precarious labour market, universities could do more in partnership with government. Part of the investment to support the sector could extend to funding postgraduate education for home students who would otherwise face a difficult labour market. If anything, our role in providing opportunity and equipping our young people with the skills they need to succeed is only going to be more important in a fragile economy and increasingly uncertain labour market. Such investment would help reduce inequality from the COVID-19 economic shock. But it is also important for the national effort to come that graduates are equipped with the higher level (graduate and postgraduate) skills they need to succeed – and in the key sectors which can deliver maximum benefit to Scotland.
Anything that would stand in the way of allowing universities to provide this social good – such as a reduction in funding – should be resisted. Equally, anything that would raise new barriers to young people in Scotland taking advantage of their right to higher education – such as a re-imposition of tuition fees – should be dismissed with equal vigour. The arguments of austerity will not work if we want to see a genuine recovery that works for all. The economic contribution made by our sector is already huge – higher education is genuinely one of Scotland’s success stories. It is also one of Scotland’s top export sectors. It will return to being that force in international education provision after the post-COVID-19 crisis, especially if we can preserve our relative strength and reputation internationally – with four of our institutions in the top 200 in the world.
But we can and should do more. Last year I published a report for the Scottish Government on how universities can best harness and maximise their economic impact for the good of all and the current crisis offers an opportunity to re-examine some of the assumptions about how our sector operates. Our towns and cities are brimming with potential – and our universities can be the catalyst to turn this potential into tangible economic results. From the Quantum Technologies and Precision Medicine agenda in Glasgow to Big Data and Robotics in Edinburgh, and Life Sciences across Scotland, there are so many high potential areas for Scotland in which our universities are leading the way.
I firmly believe that if we take the right decisions, Scotland’s universities can and will play a central role in our economic recovery. This will require investment and compromise on the part of both government and the higher education sector: but with both parties working together in the national interest, there is no reason why our universities in Scotland cannot continue to thrive, and to enhance our social, economic and cultural contribution to our national life.
A version of this article was first published in the The Herald on 30 April 2020.