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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 3, 2023


Urgent Question

The next item of business is an urgent question from Stephen Kerr.

Universities and Colleges (Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide further explanation of the removal of the previously announced £46 million of funding for universities and colleges in Scotland.

The Minister for Higher and Further Education; and Minister for Veterans (Graeme Dey)

We currently face the most difficult public spending environment since devolution and we have been clear that Government will have to make difficult choices to address new pressures in the education and skills portfolio since the 2023-24 budget announcement, which is the explanation for that decision. The £46 million of funding was not part of the core allocations for colleges and universities that the Scottish Funding Council published on 13 April. The funding was intended to enable strategic change in the sectors, additional funding for which will be reconsidered if and when the Government’s financial position allows.

The decision returns funding for universities and colleges to the previously announced flat-cash settlement, in line with the resource spending review. Despite the current challenges and extreme pressures, we continue to spend nearly £2 billion on Scotland’s colleges and universities, demonstrating our continued commitment to tertiary education.

I understand that this is disappointing news for colleges and universities and that it has added to the challenges that they face. We are therefore engaging with the Scottish Funding Council as well as the college and university sectors to ensure that institutions can achieve financial stability. I have also spoken directly today with Colleges Scotland and Universities Scotland on the matter.

Stephen Kerr

This is the last thing that our country needs right now. Professor Dame Sally Mapstone from Universities Scotland says:

“It is ... dismaying when ... we are told that higher education is being deprioritised by the Scottish Government ... The Scottish Government ... cannot keep expecting to have world-class universities on the cheap.”

Shona Struthers, of Colleges Scotland, says of the clawback that it is “inexplicable”, adding:

“Ministers are relying on colleges to provide hundreds of thousands of students with training and education each year, but with less and less funding. It simply can’t be done any more.”

I believe, from our time together on the Education, Children and Young People Committee, that the minister genuinely wants to support Scotland’s colleges and universities, but I wonder whether he has had a personality transplant, because one of his first acts on his return as a minister is to put the equivalent of a dagger in the heart of Scottish higher and further education. What did they tell him about the real-world consequences of this drastic funding cut?

Graeme Dey

There is an element—or a portrayed element—of surprise and shock in Mr Kerr’s presentation, which I do not understand, because the fact that the education portfolio has had to revisit its original budget planning can come as no surprise to Mr Kerr, nor to any other member of the Parliament’s education committee.

Not only do we face the same pressures as other portfolio areas, brought about by the appalling mismanagement of the United Kingdom economy by the Tories, we provided local government with substantial financial assistance in order that it could reach a pay settlement with teachers—something that Opposition politicians, led by Stephen Kerr, demanded repeatedly that we assist in securing.

The then Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills was crystal clear to Mr Kerr and other members of the education committee back in February that the funds involved would have to be found from within the portfolio budget, so either what we have here is an attack of selective amnesia on the part of Mr Kerr or—perish the thought—the very worst of Opposition politicking. Mr Kerr cannot have it both ways. The same money cannot be spent twice.

Stephen Kerr

I honestly think that the minister is better than the reply that he just gave. By the way, nobody told Ross Greer, another member of our committee, who was busy tweeting the day before how proud he was about the £46 million he had managed to procure for the sector from the Government, so there is something not quite joined up about all this. It was only on 15 December last year that John Swinney, with much fanfare, promised £46 million more for universities and colleges. He said:

“We must have a skills, training and research environment that enables our people and businesses to realise their potential.”

Ironically, in response to an intervention that I put to the then Deputy First Minister, he said:

“I also point out to Mr Kerr that, as part of the budget—he did not welcome this bit—more resources have been allocated to universities and colleges, which obviously contribute to the skills opportunities and capacities of our country.” —[Official Report, 15 December 2022; c 70, 93.]

John Swinney said that 20 weeks ago. What has changed? Was John Swinney wrong to allocate the money? How can Scotland’s colleges and universities be expected to plan for the long term and to fulfil the vital function that is in their power to deliver for our country, when they are faced with what is a total betrayal?

Graeme Dey

Not only does Mr Kerr display selective amnesia, he shows an inability to listen to an answer. I was very clear about what has changed. I will go back to Mr Kerr’s second point. He is right that this sets challenges for the colleges sector. I have spoken at length today with Colleges Scotland and Universities Scotland. Next week, I will be meeting Colleges Scotland’s chief executive and, separately, the principals and chairs and Universities Scotland. There will be considerable dialogue about how we can collectively address what I acknowledge are the challenges that this regrettable decision has created for them.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

The Government has thrown further and higher education into chaos by continually failing to provide answers on funding. It has given at least three different explanations to Scottish Labour about what that funding could have been used for, including supporting the transition to a financially sustainable system, supporting skills, training and research and future proofing the sector. The Government identified those challenges. Can the minister tell us how he expects the sector to address any of those challenges in the absence of the funding that it was promised?

Graeme Dey

The funding was intended to support the transition of those sectors to a more sustainable footing. Of course, the decision makes that more difficult, which is why I am engaging directly with the sector to identify ways of moving forward. I say gently to Pam Duncan-Glancy that if, God forbid, Labour ever found itself in government, it would be faced with making difficult financial decisions such as this one—although perhaps not, because if reports are to believed, Labour favours tuition fees, although I expect that the students of Scotland would have something to say about that.

Ben Macpherson (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (SNP)

The minister has already spoken about the difficult financial environment that we have been experiencing since devolution in 1999, with multiple shared challenges and demands on the public purse. Therefore, in relation to this decision, can the minister advise what analysis the Scottish Government has done in order to quantify the impact of external factors in the scenario, including Brexit and the United Kingdom Government’s 2022 mini-budget? [Interruption.] What effect has that had on financing our colleges and universities?

Graeme Dey

I hear the Conservatives groaning—how predictable. There is no doubt that Scotland continues to feel the effects of Brexit and the impact of the UK Government’s spending decisions. I spent much of this week with the university sector and I hear the continuing pain that it is suffering as a result of Brexit. Scotland is losing out on hundreds of millions of pounds in EU funding due to Brexit, including losing access to the £26 billion Erasmus+ programme because of the UK Government’s decision not to participate in it. Although the Scottish Government is doing what it can with its limited powers to ensure that we provide the services that people need, the UK Government could do far more to ease the burden that is affecting so many.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Last week, the head of Universities Scotland described the Scottish National Party Government’s university policy as “managed decline”. In response, the minister said that he was listening to universities and colleges. This week, he cut £46 million from the budget. Is he sure that he was listening? Does he think that those cuts will end that managed decline?

Graeme Dey

Once again, as with Stephen Kerr, Willie Rennie is displaying selective amnesia, because he is also a member of the Education, Children and Young People Committee. He sat at the committee and heard Shirley-Anne Somerville explain that the funding for the teachers’ pay settlement would have to be found within the education budget. I do not know from where he thought that was going to come.

To go back to Willie Rennie’s point about engagement and listening to the universities, I will, as I said, meet the relevant people in the sectors next week. I am open minded about any suggestions that the college and university sectors have about flexibility. As Willie Rennie knows, because we have talked about this in the committee in recent months, any suggestions that they have will be listened to.