University finance reforms must be planned carefully

Comment by Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice Chancellor University of Glasgow

Professor Anton Muscatelli

As the Brexit chaos continues there are rumours in Westminster that the UK Government is set to publish a long-awaited report aimed at reshaping the future of post-18 education south of the border. This could have serious implications for Scotland.

If the leaks are correct the Augar Review will recommend a cut to tuition fees for students in England and Wales from £9,250 to £7,500 or lower. Unless the Westminster Government commits to fund the shortfall, it will cause a £2bn funding gap. Whilst higher education is a devolved matter, there seems to have been no consultation to explain how a damaging financial impact in Scotland of around £31m from our universities’ reduced fee intake from students in the rest of the UK could be offset.

Mrs May’s mantra during the 2017 General Election campaign was that there was no magic money tree. With so many demands on the public purse, from health to defence to infrastructure spending, it seems an odd time to make this move. Especially at a time when Universities will be the key to delivering on that necessary post-Brexit uplift in productivity through skills and innovation.

A number of recent higher education ministers from Sam Gyimah to Jo Johnson and David Willetts have rightly warned against yet another policy rush job.

This is not an argument against reducing the burden of fees on students – only that any change to how universities are financed must be properly and sustainably funded. In Scotland the abolition of tuition fees was achieved through cross-party consensus, which guaranteed public funding. This is also why the most successful reforms in England were achieved through bipartisan commitment to sector funding review.

If the UK Government is to consider major changes on the funding of universities, it has a duty to subject its own policies to the full scrutiny of public debate and to ensure they are fully and sustainably funded to allow us to continue to provide the best University education in the world.

This is best done once the current Brexit uncertainty is dealt with, not as the Commons is again overwhelmed by Brexit debates. And if reforms are introduced south of the border there needs to be proper consultation with the devolved administrations because of our interdependent systems.

We are happy as a sector to have a debate on funding and we are confident in advancing this. But it needs to be part of a post-Brexit strategy, not a pre-crisis melee.


This article was first published in The Times on 24 May 2019 (paywall).


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