Tuesday, 21 July 2009

10,000 additional places in England - will Scotland follow Mandelson's lead?

Peter Mandelson yesterday announced an additional 10,000 places for full-time undergraduate students studying at English universities this autumn. A "good news" announcement, it would seem, particularly as it hasn't required additional cash, but has been financed by "re-prioritising existing budgets." The reaction of the sector, however, makes very clear that the devil is most definitely in the detail.

A BBC article described the additional places as "part-funded: universities will get students' tuition fees but not grants for teaching and other support." It's this "part-funding" that is the key to understanding the sector's less than ecstatic reaction. The fact that these places are to be focused on science, technology and maths (STEM) subjects, will mean the "part-funding" received in student fees will, in most cases, very definitely be the smaller part: the HEFCE grant funding universities would normally receive for many STEM students is significantly greater than the £3,145 tuition fee the students themselves pay. Under yesterday's announcement English universities will miss out on this larger element of their normal income per student and only receive the annual fees paid directly by the student for the duration of their course.

This absence of the larger slice of the funding per student, plus the need to still find funds to offer bursaries to many taking up these extra places, is what lies behind the lack of enthusiasm for Lord Mandelson's announcement. Whilst Million+ welcomed the news as a campaign victory, they must surely have hoped for more than this in making the sector's case. The Russell Group, the 1994 Group and the UCU were all far less up-beat and variously voiced concerns about the impact education "on the cheap" might have on the quality of the student experience, on staff workloads and on the long term financial health of universities. Student Groups were similar non-plussed,. The NUS noted that "thousands of people who have applied to study non-STEM subjects are still going to be without a place in the summer" and expressed disappointment that the student loan “repayment holiday” will be reduced to two years as part of the re-prioritisation to find funding for these extra places.

But what might this announcement mean for Scotland? Back in February, UCU called for additional funding for the Scottish higher education sector in recognition of the increased numbers of university applicants resulting from the economic downturn. Can we now expect Fiona Hyslop to accede to the Union's demands and follow Lord Mandelson's lead?

Last month, the Scottish Government announced investment of £16.1 million in places at Scotland's Colleges, along with a further £12 million investment to improve the institution's estates infrastructure. In light of this, it might be that the Scottish Government has made its move, and chosen to spend its money to alleviate demand caused by the downturn by supporting Scotland's colleges, rather than its universities.

However, even though the additional places in England are cash-neutral, some additional funding may yet come the way of the Scottish Government via the Barnett formula which is used to allocate funding to the devolved nations. If this is the case, then Universities Scotland will almost certainly look to lay claim to any such funds in order to assist the sector with the increased level of undergraduate applications. However, as was the case in England, any available funds may have to be stretched much more thinly than institutions might like if the government is to be able to announce an additional number of places which looks newsworthy and appears to go a reasonable way towards meeting the significantly increased demand.

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