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Chamber and committees

Education, Children and Young People Committee

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Agenda: Decision on Taking Business in Private, Colleges Regionalisation Inquiry, Universities, Subordinate Legislation



The Deputy Convener

Welcome back. We will now have a short session about universities. I welcome back the Minister for Higher Education, Further Education, Youth Employment and Training, Jamie Hepburn, and Stephen Pathirana, the director of advanced learning and science at the Scottish Government. I also welcome Shazia Razzaq, strategic lead for university policy, governance and equalities, and Roddy MacDonald, head of the higher education and science division, who join us from the Scottish Government.

As with the previous panel, I expect that most, if not all, of our questions will be directed to the minister. However, anyone else who wishes to come in on any of the questions should put an R in the chat bar. The clerks will monitor the chat bar and I will bring you in whenever I can.

Members and witnesses should be aware that there is an active case in court relating to the Universities Superannuation Scheme and that, therefore, the case is sub judice. I ask members and witnesses to refrain from referring to matters relating to that case.

We will begin with questions about student accommodation from Graeme Dey, and I will also come in on that topic.

Graeme Dey

Good morning again, minister. As you are well aware, there have been some localised but significant issues with access to student accommodation at certain universities this year. When such situations arise, to what extent does the Government record or monitor the availability of student accommodation in those localities, and to what extent does it enter into dialogue with those universities in seeking to achieve an outcome?

Mr Hepburn?

I do not think he is here.

Did you hear the question, Mr Hepburn?

Clearly not.

The Deputy Convener

It looks as though Mr Hepburn did not hear that question. I believe that the technical team is working on that issue at the moment. There will be a short suspension to allow them to deal with our technical difficulties.

10:52 Meeting suspended.  

10:53 On resuming—  

Minister, can you hear me now?

I can hear you now. Forgive me, convener: I could not hear to the extent that I did not even realise that the session had started until I saw a very confused-looking Mr Dey.

The Deputy Convener

Welcome back, after a short suspension while we sorted out our technical difficulties. I will take the liberty of repeating the introduction so that we can make a fair start to the session.

I welcome back Jamie Hepburn, the Minister for Higher Education, Further Education, Youth Employment and Training, and Stephen Pathirana, the director of advanced learning and science at the Scottish Government. I also welcome Shazia Razzaq, strategic lead for university policy, governance and equalities, and Roddy MacDonald, head of the higher education and science division, who join us from the Scottish Government.

As with the previous panel, I expect that most, if not all, of our questions will be directed to the minister. However, anyone else who wishes to come in on any of the questions should put an R in the chat box, which will be monitored by the clerks, and I will bring you in when I can.

Members and witnesses should be aware that there is an active court case relating to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, so that is sub judice. I therefore ask members and witnesses to refrain from referring to matters relating to that case.

We will move to questions, starting with Graeme Dey.

Graeme Dey

Good morning again, minister. As you are well aware, in recent times, we have had issues in specific localities with university student accommodation. What is the Government’s role in that regard? What is the position on recording and monitoring the availability of student housing in relation to each university? When an issue arises, what dialogue is there and what role do Government officials have in engaging with individual universities in seeking to achieve an appropriate outcome?

Jamie Hepburn

I am glad that I can hear you now, Mr Dey. I apologise for any confusion.

I perceive there to be a role for us in that, but it is not the leading role. We are not a direct provider of student accommodation and never have been—there has never been a role for Government in that regard, and I do not detect any sense that that should change. However, that is not to say that the issue is not of substantial concern to me in my ministerial role. I have engaged directly with specific universities on the issue, particularly the University of Glasgow, which had a situation that was widely reported. At that stage, I got a degree of reassurance that the university was taking every step possible to work through the remaining issues that it had.

We are committed to introducing a student accommodation strategy, which will be informed by the purpose-built student accommodation review that is under way. We recently commissioned evidence from the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence. That evidence is now with us and will be considered by the purpose-built student accommodation review steering group. We will then publish that evidence—at that juncture, I will be happy to write directly to the committee. That will inform the consideration of what we might be able to do to ensure better provision of housing for students.

Of course, the issue is part of a wider challenge of pressure on the availability of housing. We have done work on, for example, short-term lets to better enable local authorities to regulate that market and ensure a wider supply of housing for other groups who require it, including students.

There is action that we can take, although we cannot take it alone. We have to work with the sector to ensure that it lives up to its responsibility for ensuring that the students that universities recruit are adequately housed. We will continue to work through that with our student accommodation strategy.

Graeme Dey

I have one follow-up question. Obviously, I welcome the actions that you have identified, but, given what happened this year, how optimistic are you that the work can be progressed, in conjunction with the universities, at sufficient pace to ensure that there is no repetition of the issue in the next academic year, as we hope will be the case?

Jamie Hepburn

Work is under way, and I certainly want to have it substantially advanced before the next academic year. It would be disingenuous to suggest that some of the wider pressures that we are seeing will go away any time soon. For example, the University of Glasgow told me that it has plans to increase the amount of its directly provided student accommodation. That is the type of response that I hope to see in the sector. I recognise that that will not be achieved readily and that it requires lead-in time for planning applications, construction and so on. However, that activity has to start sooner rather than later, as do our actions in the student accommodation strategy.

The Deputy Convener

Mr Hepburn will be aware that I am very concerned about the issue, given that my constituency includes not only the University of Glasgow but eight institutes of higher and further education—nine including the Open University. That puts particular pressures on the area and means that, as well as the area being welcoming and accommodating towards students, there can be tension with the resident population. It is a complicated picture. I am aware that the minister has been working closely with the University of Glasgow, as have I.


It might be useful for us to understand the bigger picture. Can the minister give us an indication of the pressures on student accommodation across Scotland and how that fits in with the picture across the United Kingdom? I am trying to get to the bottom of whether it is a uniquely Scottish issue, a Glasgow issue or a university town issue, or whether the pressures are being felt up and down the country.

Jamie Hepburn

On the last point, it will be particularly acute during the university term. It is not a Glasgow-specific issue—other locations in Scotland report similar challenges. It is also not a Scotland-specific challenge, as we see similar challenges in other parts of the UK, such as in Manchester and in other cities and communities where there are higher education institutions. It is not specific to Scotland by any stretch of the imagination.

We have to work with partners to respond to that reality and ensure that there is sufficiency of supply of accommodation, recognising that there are other pressures, too. We all represent regions and constituencies in which there are many constituents who are not students who are also looking to be housed.

We have a role not as a direct provider of housing, but in setting the strategic direction in conjunction with the sector. We will do that through the strategy that I mentioned. We need to work with other partners, too. I have already referred to the fact that we have empowered local authorities in respect of the regulation of short-term lets.

Local authorities also have to consider how to balance the various requirements in relation to their own populations’ housing needs. You have referred to some of the tensions that can exist, and I recognise those. They have to be managed carefully by any local authority to ensure sufficiency of supply for the various housing requirements in the locality.

We will move swiftly on to cover university finances. It is a short session, but I am prepared to allow a wee bit of time for this. Ruth Maguire will kick off and Michael Marra will come in after that.

Ruth Maguire

Although my question is about university finances, it is more from a student perspective. I believe that I have raised this issue in writing directly with you, minister, and I also raised it in a previous evidence session.

An educational psychology student who does a work placement with a local authority is not classed as a student during that placement and therefore does not have access to council tax reduction or other benefits that the university might provide, such as in relation to a welfare fund or childcare assistance. We are pretty short of educational psychologists. I will not go over all the details—the minister can read the Official Report of the previous session. Is there anything that the Scottish Government can do in respect of students such as the educational psychology students? There are other professions in which a grant is given—I am thinking of midwives and some nurses—so the issue may well affect more than that specific cohort. I am interested in hearing the minister’s views on that.

Jamie Hepburn

That is a very specific example. I recognise the importance of recruiting into that profession. Those are long-standing arrangements and are designed in such a way as to ensure that any individual should be able to draw down other forms of support that would not be available to them if they were still classified as a student.

I am conscious that the issue has been raised with the Government, and we are, of course, happy to reflect on that. However, I observe that the arrangement has not been introduced recently; it is quite a long-standing arrangement that is very much designed to reflect the fact that, during that period, the person is not in a classroom environment and they are not undertaking any form of study but they are in the workplace. As I said, we are more than willing to look at such things.

Ruth Maguire

The fact that an arrangement is of long standing does not mean that is should remain unchanged. I know that that is not what you are implying, but I thought it important to make that clear. The matter feels important, as those individuals are studying for a profession in which there are shortages—there is certainly a shortage of psychologists in Ayrshire and Arran. We know that meeting the demand for mental health support for children and young people is a challenge, particularly in relation to the provision of educational psychologists. Thank you for noting my comments.

Michael Marra

I am keen to focus on the impact of long-tern financial trends on the university sector. We have already had exchanges in the chamber on the research excellence framework. The latest REF results indicate that universities in the rest of the UK are improving their performance at a faster rate than those in Scotland are. Although the set of results for Scotland are great, there is a worrying trend in comparison with the rest of the UK, and I know that the sector shares our worries. I am keen to get on record your views on the long-term strategic approach for the university sector and what that might mean for Scotland.

Jamie Hepburn

First, I hope that we will all reflect on the position of higher education research and development right now. If you look at the percentage of expenditure across public and private resource on higher education research and development, you will see that we are ranked seventh among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries and that our spend as a percentage of gross domestic product is above the OECD average, the EU27 average and the UK average. It is important that we reflect on that.

On what we are seeking to do, we increased the baseline grants for university research and innovation this year. At this point, I must refer back to the challenging budgetary context that we are in. However, we will leverage in additional resource where we can, and the increase in the baseline grants is a demonstration that we have done so.

Of course, I want to maintain the position whereby Scotland’s universities are doing comparatively better in drawing down existing funding, such as UK Research and Innovation funding. We are still outperforming the UK as a whole in terms of the population average—the most recent figures show that 13 per cent of UKRI spend was drawn down to Scotland, which is well ahead of our population position. I will engage with UKRI to understand how we can continue to maintain that position.

Michael Marra

The position is not being maintained, minister. The gap is closing and our comparative capture of UKRI spending is declining. However, you are right to say that it is a good thing that we are outperforming the rest of the UK. We, as taxpayers, make a significant investment in our universities, and we want to see them continue to improve their performance.

I understand your points about the short-term budgetary considerations and the real pressure that is being faced. However, for 13 years there has been no increase in the unit of resource that is paid to Scottish universities for Scottish students. That is the key driver in terms of the business model that universities operate under, so is there not a long-term issue?

I am keen to get your personal thoughts on how important the sector is to the economic performance of the country in the long run. Whatever the constitutional settlement is in the future, which we may disagree on, how important is the sector? We have to maintain that advantage and increase it. What is being done by the Government to ensure that that can happen?

Jamie Hepburn

My personal reflection on the importance of the university sector is that it is of the utmost importance to our standing in the world because of the world-class research that we see across all our institutions. If we look at the results that Mr Marra referred to a few moments ago, we see first-class research right across every institution. We should celebrate that and shout about it. If I have any mild critique of the sector, it is that we could do a better job of shouting about the activity that is happening here, in Scotland. There is a role for us as well.

Clearly, the sector is also an important driver in ensuring that we are responsive to the various skills requirements that we have in Scotland, and universities are, of course, important as economic anchors in their own right and in their own communities. The university sector is of the utmost importance; I do not want there to be any sense that I do not recognise that.

In terms of the resource that we invest, we continue to put more than £1 billion into the university sector every year. That is a substantial investment by any reasonable estimation. Do we need to look again at the unit cost—the cost per head? I am afraid that I am bound to say that it will be difficult to do that in the context of where the budget is just now. There is no point in pretending otherwise.

Michael Marra

Universities Scotland has written to the committee and has told us that we have now reached what it describes as a significant tipping point. In 2023-24, the amount of money that is brought into universities by international student recruitment will, for the first time, outstrip public funding. We could talk about the rights and wrongs of that in terms of the budget process, but does it worry the minister that we are open to external shocks? There is a vulnerability in our institutions—as you rightly put it, our vital public universities—to a shock in international relations and the recruitment market for international students that we are now so reliant on. Is that a concern for the minister, and what can we do to ensure resilience against that?

Jamie Hepburn

I take the point and will come on to it. However, in the first instance, it is important for us to reflect—collectively, I hope—on the fact that international students are very welcome in Scotland. They play an important part in our university communities and, indeed, in our wider society.

I am alert to some of the challenges that Mr Marra refers to. I take those challenges seriously, and we have to be cognisant of them. We are committed to developing our international education strategy, and a core part of that has to be how we make it clear that the sector can be resilient in the face of any particular type of shock that you may refer to. We are alert to and conscious of that, and we want to work with the sector to ensure that that resilience is embedded within our institutions.

I have one more question to ask on the issue, if I may.

I will allow you a small bit of leeway.

Michael Marra

Thank you. I think that it will be appreciated by the committee.

Can we have a date for the international education strategy? Can we have any details of what you mean when you say that you are cognisant of the issue of external shock? What is being done to make our institutions and the sector more resilient?

A colleague on the committee suggested, at a previous meeting, that the idea that there might be different fees in different parts of the university sector—different rates per unit of resource—has created real concern within the sector. Perhaps the minister will take the opportunity either to dismiss that or to confirm that it is under active consideration by the Government.


Jamie Hepburn

That is not under active consideration. It is not something that we are specifically looking at. Various things can be considered as we move forward, but that is not something that I envisage us looking at, because it would immediately embed an additional layer of complexity and unintended consequences. I hope that that provides some reassurance.

You asked me to explain what I mean about being cognisant of some of the challenges. I do not know how to explain that any more specifically. I am conscious of, and understand, the challenges. We have seen a very real shock to the international order this year, and that continues to have a wider influence on global affairs. It does not particularly affect this area of life in Scotland, but it demonstrates that events come along and can change things. What I mean by that is that we must work with the sector to recognise that events like that can happen. Where that might have a particular impact on the sector as a whole or, as is more likely, on specific institutions, how do we deal with that? How do we ensure that institutions can continue to undertake their work if such an event comes along?

Regarding a timescale, I am happy to follow that up with the committee and give you some more detail of the work that we are undertaking on strategy.

Thank you, minister. Any follow-up regarding a timescale would be very helpful. Stephen Kerr wants to come in.

Stephen Kerr

I will be brief. The minister suggests that the sector has not suffered from the geopolitical shocks of the events of this year and the consequences of the supply chain crisis at the end of Covid. I suggest that the sector is suffering, as all sectors are suffering, because of the impact of global inflation and increasing international uncertainties.

Minister, Universities Scotland said something specific that I would like to read to you so that we can get your view.

“Even without the perpetual risk of a geopolitical shock, the extent of cross-subsidy now jeopardises the quality of education, experience and support that universities are able to offer. When that happens, international students will exercise their choice to go elsewhere.”

What are your thoughts on that?

Jamie Hepburn

On your first point, I was not suggesting that there has been no impact. If I picked up Mr Marra’s point correctly, I was referring to the fact that there are particular markets and that a number of students are attracted to Scotland. That has not been substantially disrupted by the events of this year.

Clearly, in common with every sector—which adds to the budget pressures that we face—there has been an impact resulting from the wider geopolitical situation that we have seen this year.

Mr Kerr made a point on behalf of Universities Scotland. I am more than willing to get into that with Universities Scotland and to look at the detail. We have not done that so far, and Universities Scotland has not come to me to say how that might manifest itself. I would be interested in understanding how it would negatively impact the educational experience. I have certainly not perceived that having international students come to Scotland has had any particularly negative impact.

If there is an issue with potential impacts on the sector caused by other international events, I go back to the answer that I just gave Mr Marra, which is that we need to take account of that in the international education strategy that we have committed to taking forward.


I cannot hear you, Mr Kerr.

Sorry. Can you hear me now?

I can hear you now.

Stephen Kerr

Here is another quote from Universities Scotland’s submission to us. It says that the funding model that we now operate

“bakes in a structural reliance on international fees”.

It is saying that, even without the potential for a geopolitical shock, the level of cross-subsidy is going to erode the quality of the education and the experience on offer in Scotland. I am actually shocked, convener, that that has never been discussed between Universities Scotland and the minister, because it seems to me to be a huge existing and known threat.

I will make one more point, if I may, convener. The possibility of further geopolitical shocks is obviously very real, particularly in relation to the share of international students who come to Scotland from China, which was 17,165 in 2020-21. Of course, we welcome all the international students who come to Scotland—

Do you have a question, Mr Kerr? I am just keeping an eye on the time.

Stephen Kerr

My question is about the cross-subsidy and the vulnerability in relation to that particular block of students. Also, does the minister agree that

“The Chinese Communist party is using all the instruments of its international architecture, including the Confucius Institutes, to harass, intimidate and track down people”?

That, by the way, is a quote from Stewart McDonald, the Scottish National Party defence spokesman.

Jamie Hepburn

The first point is a fairly fundamental one that I have to respond to. I am not suggesting that these matters have not been discussed in the round with Universities Scotland; of course, they have been. I was referring to the very specific point that was made in the letter that you have quoted. I am more than willing to pick up on that point with Universities Scotland.

On Mr Kerr’s specific point about that particular market and that particular cohort of students, I guess that that would be reflected in the answer that I have already given, in terms of how we work with the sector to enable it to be resilient to any particular shock that may come. However, let us not talk up the prospect of a shock in the first instance; rather, let us ensure that the sector can be resilient to that possibility.

On the latter point, about Confucius institutes, I have no direct control or say in the relationship that any individual institution might have with such organisations—that is for the universities to account for. What I can say is that the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act 2016 is very clear about what should be undertaken in relation to academic freedoms in our institutions, and I expect that to be taken very seriously.

Thank you, minister. We are heading into our final few minutes. I will bring in Stephanie Callaghan.

Stephanie Callaghan

I have a couple of questions that I will roll into one.

Wellbeing has rightly been a key priority, with the Scottish Government funding 80 additional university mental health counsellors. First, is adequate support available for students who are struggling with their mental health? Secondly, we heard in evidence about the positive impact of the additional mental health counsellors and about the possibility of funding them from budgets other than the education budget; can you say anything further on that just now or offer an idea of the timescales and the decisions around continued funding for mental health counsellors?

Jamie Hepburn

We are looking at that just now, and it is an inextricable part of the budget process.

We made certain commitments, through our manifesto and through our programme for government, and I am very clear that we need to meet those commitments in the first instance. What we might do beyond that must be informed by our engagement with the sector.

I understand and recognise that the sector sees value in the investment that has been made in mental health counsellors. However, we also have to be informed by the student mental health action plan that we are going to introduce in conjunction with the sector.

We have a student mental health and wellbeing working group, which rightly involves the National Union of Students and other representatives of the sector, to make sure that any decisions that we make are made on an informed basis and that we are responding to what I recognise are significant challenges in terms of the mental wellbeing of Scotland’s student population. It has been an enormously difficult period, through Covid-19 and now with the cost of living crisis, and that will bring its pressures to bear on the student population and their sense of wellbeing. Our strategy is going to be well timed in that regard. How we resource and structure it thereafter is a matter for wider consideration in line with the ordinary budget process that we have in place.

Stephanie Callaghan, have you finished your questions?

Yes, thank you, convener.

I am mindful of the time. I allowed an extra few minutes to compensate for our technical difficulties, but we have reached the end of our brief but productive session. I thank you all for your time.