By Richard Lochhead
In the midst of this global health crisis, I start by paying tribute to our world-leading universities and colleges in Scotland. The pandemic has placed unprecedented demands on the sector, yet the response of our colleges and universities has—as I am sure we all agree—been quite remarkable, given how quickly they have had to adapt to a new set of very challenging circumstances that they could never have imagined.
They have risen to those challenges and we thank them for it. I also put on record the significant work that is under way in the community learning and development sector to support some of Scotland’s most vulnerable adults and young people. That sector continues to deliver essential support despite the challenges of Covid-19.
I want all the people who work in that sector to know that their efforts have been recognised and are very much appreciated by the Scottish Government and, indeed, this Parliament.We know that the pandemic is an unprecedented external shock, and it requires Government and institutions to work very closely together.
That is why I set up a leadership group as early as March, when the impact first began to emerge. The group brings together senior leaders from across post-16 education—from principals to union leaders and student representatives—and we get round a virtual table regularly to discuss how best to respond to this significant crisis.
It is overseeing our work on a wide range of issues, including financial sustainability and digital poverty. I thank all members of the group for their tireless efforts.
The fact remains that Covid-19 is having a massive impact on our further and higher education sectors. Factors including international student mobility and a drop in commercial income and charitable and industry research income all combine to pose a potentially huge challenge to the sector, albeit that we do not and will not know the full extent of that challenge for some time.
Of course, this is not simply a Scottish or United Kingdom problem, but a global problem. Today, I published a summary of our immediate support for our institutions and how we are looking towards what might be needed in the future. Our further and higher education sustainability plan includes additional resources.
We have now provided £75 million to protect world-leading research in our institutions, £10 million for estates development, an international student action plan, an additional £5 million across further and higher education for student support, and early access to £11.4 million of HE hardship funds.
Importantly, our universities will also have access to the grants and substantial long-term, low-interest loans related to research that the UK Government announced on 27 June.
It is important that we are clear about one critical point, which is that our colleges and universities absolutely deserve the utmost support, because they are vital to the solution that Scotland needs to get through and out of this crisis.
That fact was recognised in Bernard Higgins’s recently published report, “Towards a Robust, Resilient Wellbeing Economy for Scotland: Report of the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery”, which is one of the key reasons why I asked the Scottish Funding Council to lead a review of provision and financial sustainability to ensure that colleges and universities are able to play that role.
Its work will shape an important part of the Government’s thinking on our future strategy for tertiary education in Scotland.Institutional health is one aspect of our plan and support for students is another.
Online learning, in particular, has arrived with a bang for much of the sector, and so have some of the subsequent challenges of that, such as some learners being unable to enjoy the full benefits of connectivity.
On digital support, the Scottish Government has already invested more than £40 million in supporting access to digital technology.
Today, I announce that we will go further and invest an additional £5 million to help bridge the digital divide for students in Scotland. That will see investment in adaptive technologies for students with disabilities, increased online support and, for the most disadvantaged, provision of the devices that they need to access learning.I am pleased to say that our colleges and universities will be open for business after the summer.
Students from Scotland, the rest of the UK and overseas can be confident of receiving the benefits of an excellent Scottish education. As the First Minister said in her message to international students just a few days ago, our prime focus will also be their safety.
From Monday 13 July, time-sensitive mandatory or regulated skills assessments that are essential to the completion of modern apprenticeship qualifications or to comply with a legal obligation may resume in our colleges.
From 22 July, colleges and universities can begin a phased return to on-campus learning as part of a blended model with remote teaching.
Appropriate safety measures, including physical distancing, will of course be in place; 2m physical distancing remains the default and institutions should continue to plan for the new term on that basis.
However, as we enter phase 3 of the route map and move forward, exemptions will be considered for specific sectors and settings where agreed additional mitigations must be put in place. That would allow organisations in relevant sectors, if they choose, to operate with a 1m distance, on the condition that agreed mitigations, fully recorded in risk assessments, are implemented.
We are now looking at whether such exemptions might be applied to colleges and universities in certain circumstances. We will provide an update on that work as soon as we can.Our approach throughout this crisis has been to ensure the continued safety of staff and students, and I want to be clear that that remains our absolute priority.
I know that for prospective and continuing students this has been a worrying and uncertain time, but our institutions remain world class, welcoming and open, and, with the measures set out in our guidance, they will remain safe.
Today’s new Universities and Colleges Admissions Service figures show a 16 per cent increase in the number of non-European Union applications to our universities—the highest in the UK—which an encouraging sign that the message is getting through.
As if the monumental challenge of Covid-19 was not enough, the challenge of Brexit is about to become very real. Covid coincides with Brexit, presenting a double whammy for our universities and colleges.
Let me remind the chamber that it is the UK Government that turned its back on Europe, not Scotland, and now its chaotic handling of the entire Brexit process jeopardises the future success of our colleges and universities.
Those institutions, our students and young people and our research excellence have all disproportionately benefited from EU membership compared to their UK counterparts, and they will now be disproportionately harmed.
The Scottish Government has always been clear that its overwhelming priority is for Scotland to remain a part of Erasmus+ and horizon 2020 for their unparalleled educational, cultural and economic benefits. Scotland gains a huge amount from those programmes and we secure proportionally more funding under both than any other part of the UK does.
We were told by UK Government that we would be “co-creators” in building the UK’s future relationship with international mobility. No one in the chamber will be surprised to hear that, instead, negotiations have been frustrating and the tendency to consult us on decisions after they are taken continues, such as in relation to the recent decision that any UK alternative to Erasmus+ would not subsidise inward mobility.
We will continue to be open and constructive, but the clock is ticking and I am afraid that the signals on Erasmus+ point towards a poorer outcome for young Scots compared to the advantages that previous generations enjoyed.
Equally, there is no good Brexit for university research and we are still not any clearer about the future of horizon 2020.
Members should remember that Audit Scotland warned of a Brexit cost of £211 million to our universities. Even though the full impact of Brexit is yet to be seen, I must now set out its effect on EU tuition fees.
As a result of EU law, since the Scottish Government abolished tuition fees, we have treated EU students in the same way that we treat students from Scotland: they do not pay tuition fees. It is only as a result of EU law applying in Scotland that that has been possible—indeed, it has been mandatory.
Our EU law obligations cease at the end of the transition period in a few months, and continuing with that arrangement from 2021-22 would significantly increase the risk of any legal challenge.Following the UK’s vote to leave the EU, I announced that the 2020-21 academic year was a transition year for the policy, and it is with a heavy heart that we have taken the difficult decision to end free education for new EU students from the academic year 2021-22 onwards, as a direct consequence of Brexit.
However, EU students who have already started their studies or who start this autumn will not be affected and will still be tuition free for the entirety of their course.
That is the stark reality of Brexit and a painful reminder that our country’s decisions are affected by UK policies that we did not support or vote for.Our internationalism remains a key strength of higher education in Scotland, so we will discuss with the sector an ambitious scholarship programme to ensure that the ancient European nation of Scotland continues to attract significant numbers of European students to study here.
As a consequence of the decision that we have taken on EU students, we must also decide what happens to the funding that currently supports those places. I can confirm that we will not remove the funding that we currently devote to paying EU student fees from the overall funding for the sector.
Under current trends, following further analysis, we estimate that that could be up to £19 million for 2021-22 alone.
As a result of that decision, that new flexibility for the sector should lead to an increase in the number of students from Scotland getting a place at university at a time when our young people face the economic impact of Covid-19. No doubt that will provide some significant support at an important time.
As we respond to Covid-19 and Brexit, I want to emphasise the continued success of our colleges and universities is crucial to our economic prosperity and to our future social well-being and it must be central to this county’s recovery, which we must now build.
Our colleges and universities provide our people with life chances and skills and are the engines that power our society. They are a source of strength for our nation and we must protect them. This Government will stand by them to meet the challenges and grasp the exciting opportunities that lie ahead, and I hope that Parliament will support us as we do that.