Great Britain

Scottish universities ask ministers for up to £25m a year to fund extra places

University and college leaders in Scotland are pressing the Scottish government to find up to £25m a year to pay for its promise of thousands of extra places for school leavers affected by the exam results crisis.

Negotiations are under way after John Swinney, the Scottish education secretary, guaranteed to provide university or college places for thousands of pupils whose results were upgraded on Tuesday, allowing them to apply for higher or further education.

In an embarrassing policy reversal, Swinney ordered the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which oversees the school exams system, to accept teacher recommendations for 124,000 downgraded qualifications, improving awards for 76,000 pupils.

That has led to a Higher pass rate of 89% - 14.4 points higher than last year, and an Advanced Higher pass rate of 93%, nearly 14 points higher than in 2019.

Swinney said: “Due to unique circumstances of the situation, we will this year make provision for enough places in universities and colleges to ensure that no one is crowded out of a place that they would otherwise have been awarded.”

It remains unclear how many more students will now be eligible for places who would have previously been refused based on the SQA’s first results decisions, but the SQA has estimated it could lead to 3,500 to 4,000 extra places being needed.

A Scottish government source said those costs would be met “in full”, although he confirmed it was not yet clear how or when they would be paid for.

University executives said they had not yet had written confirmation that this would be done or how, and are pressing for clarification after Swinney refused to firmly commit to fully fund those places in parliament on Tuesday.

Scottish domiciled students get free tuition at Scottish colleges and universities, but the Scottish Funding Council, a government quango, only funds about 90% of the teaching costs, or less for expensive courses such as medicine, forcing universities to subsidise those places with income from foreign students.

That state funding also means places for Scottish students are capped at about 108,000 each year; university sources said Swinney’s pledge meant that cap would need to be scrapped.

The global coronavirus pandemic is expected to result in a fall in the number of foreign students, adding to the sector’s financial pressures and its demands for ministers to fund the extra places.

Swinney’s decision to upgrade so many Higher results also means thousands of extra Scottish teenagers would be eligible for university or college places next year. Most pupils take their Higher exams in fifth year, and apply for university the following year.

Each extra student given a place this year and next would remain at university for four to five years. A senior university executive said that would lead to a “bulge” until 2026, which ministers would need to fund, as well as pay for the non-academic support they needed.

The executive said Swinney’s policy change would increase spending on tuition costs by between £20m and £30m extra each year. He was optimistic ministers would honour their funding promise, because failing to do so would be politically disastrous for Swinney.

He said universities were autonomous bodies, and could not be forced to take extra students who were not funded. “If they don’t fund it, no one can compel us to take them,” he said.

Officials in the SQA were trying to establish how many places were needed at colleges or universities, which subjects were involved and how to find the estimated £25m required to fund them, the government official said.

They were now discussing “what’s the most sensible way to make this a reality, given the complexities of the system and standing here, right now, we don’t have the SQA data,” the source said.

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