University challenge

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It is a grim irony that Julie Bertagna’s best-selling teenage book, Exodus, concerns a 15-year-old girl seeking refuge in a fractured, dystopian world, unwelcoming to outsiders. The Scottish author, a supporter of the “remain” campaign, contacted Nicola Sturgeon in the aftermath of the Brexit vote to tell the first minister that her daughter, who had graduated only days before from Edinburgh University with an MA Hons in modern languages, had had her internship working as a translator in Milan cancelled two days after Britain voted to leave the EU. The sole reason given? Brexit.


The revelation led to a Twitter storm with many expressing fears that the current generation of students and new graduates will find their opportunities limited in the aftermath of Brexit. Students and academics from EU countries studying and working in the UK are also fearful for their futures, despite the fact that John Swinney, the education secretary, has promised that existing EU students will continue to get free tuition at Scottish universities whatever happens during the negotiation process.

The Scottish university sector has, in general, been one of the most outspoken supporters of remaining in the EU. With Scottish universities already feeling the squeeze, will Brexit lead to a downgrading of their influence? But with Scots students finding it harder to get places at Scottish universities, could leaving the EU free up places for home students while increasing income for hard pressed departments? In the new university challenge could Scots be the winners?

“Our priorities are to influence the negotiations for the terms of Scotland, and the UK’s, future relationship with the EU,” says a spokesman for Universities Scotland. “We want to retain the right for staff and students from EU countries to continue working and studying in Scotland and to negotiate access to European programmes for students, staff and research. We believe this is compatible with the electorate’s decision and would be to the benefit of Scotland and the UK.”

There 24,000 EU students studying at Scottish universities, around 10% of the total student body, a significantly higher proportion than the UK as a whole, where EU nationals make up 6.4%. In addition, 4,500 academic staff in Scottish universities come from EU countries. EU students in Scotland, unlike students from England, have their tuition fees covered by the British taxpayer because of European anti-discrimination laws. While they don’t pay fees, research by Universities UK calculates that EU students contribute £400m to the Scottish economy and support 3,743 jobs north of the border.

The referendum result has created great uncertainty and instability

The contribution is more than merely financial. Remain campaigners point to the cultural and social contributions by EU nationals living and working in the UK. “The referendum result has created great uncertainty and instability in higher education,” says Alistair Sim, director of Universities Scotland. “However, the result has not, and will not, change the fact that higher education is truly global; it transcends borders. Our relationships with Europe, European universities and other institutions remain very important to us and we will work with all governments and stakeholders to ensure those relationships are preserved under the new arrangements.”

But according to Robert Wright, professor of economics at Strathclyde University, there could be an unexpected benefit for Scottish universities from Brexit. “Scottish universities problems have very little to do with Brexit,” says Wright. “They are running out of money because Scottish undergraduate don’t pay fees and under EU rules any undergraduate coming from a EU country does not pay fees either. The Scottish taxpayer is footing a big bill for Scottish undergraduates and EU undergraduates.

“After Brexit we can assume that someone coming from an EU country to study in Scotland would be expected to pay the same as someone coming from outside the EU. As a result there is bound to be a reduction of the number of EU students coming but it won’t be zero and the revenue they bring will be more than the revenue we get now from EU undergraduates, which is nothing. I am absolutely against leaving the EU for economic reasons but this could be one of the benefits.”

Since 2012/13 undergraduates from England, Wales and Northern Ireland have had to pay fees of up to £9,000 a year to study at Scottish universities. But the real bonanza comes from international students from outside of Europe who can pay as much as £47,200 a year for the most sought after courses at the most prestigious universities. The competition between universities for high-paying students from India and China is intense.

“With postgraduate students it’s a total capitalist free-for- all,” says Wright. “They are charged what the market will bear. There has been a massive expansion in trying to attract postgraduate students to keep the ship afloat and that isn’t going to be affected by Brexit at all. The bottom line is Scottish universities are going bankrupt. They need the money.”

Last week Audit Scotland released its first significant report into the higher education sector. It says that, while the sector is “financially healthy”, it faces “future challenges, and tough choices are likely to lie ahead if public funding is to deliver government policy ambitions”. There has been a 6% real terms cut in the amount of cash universities receive from the Scottish Funding Council (SFC). In 2014-15 the government provided £1.7bn to the sector but Audit Scotland confirmed that institutions were “placing increasing reliance on generating income from fee-paying students from the rest of the UK and outside the European Union”.

It sounds like diplomatic language for saying what may academics have claimed which is that free tuition, a bedrock of the SNP government’s education policy, is unsustainable longer term without damaging the global standing of Scotland’s universities. The sector currently punches above its weight with five Scottish universities in the global top 200 but there are fears that this will be eroded over time.

The report also found that it has become more difficult for Scottish students to qualify for a place at their home universities. Applications have increased by 23% since 2010, yet the number of offers made by universities has increased by only 9%. With ministers demanding that a fifth of students come from the poorest postcodes by 2030, Audit Scotland has warned that middle-class Scots face being further squeezed out. A reduction in the number of EU students could free up more places for Scots.

Last year almost one in five Scots, 19%, applying to university did not receive any offers from a Scottish university, up from 15% in 2010. The offer rate for Scottish students from Scottish universities has fallen from 57% in 2010 to 50% in 2015.

By contrast, the offer rate for international students from outside the EU in 2015 was 63%, with the rate for applicants from England, Wales and Northern Ireland ranging between 56% and 58%. While 66% of students at Scottish universities come from Scotland at the four “ancient” universities — Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews — fewer than half of the students are from Scotland.

In terms of research funding, more than one pound in every 10 comes from the EU, about £75m in total. A further £13m comes from industry and public bodies based in the EU, taking Scotland’s proportionate share of funding from the EU to 13%. As importantly, according to Universities Scotland, is the potential for collaboration and influencing the direction of research.

Giving evidence to the Science and Technology Select Committee at Westminster last week, Professor Sir Ian Diamond, chair of Universities UK Research Policy Network and Principal of Aberdeen University, argued that the UK government must guarantee research funding in the post-Brexit age. Academics arguing for “leave” have pointed to the potential for greater collaboration and potential funding from non-EU countries such as the US and China.

Wright points out that research income from the private and public sectors should be unaffected by Brexit but adds that Scottish universities are much more reliant on research income because they are unable to charge undergraduate tuition fees. For academic staff from EU countries, the outlook is uncertain. Brexit is almost certain to mean more barriers and greater costs for European academics, potentially making the UK a less attractive place to work.

Immigration fees for those from non-EU rose from £270 per person in 2010 to £1,151 per person in 2016 for a General Tier 2 work visa for more than three years applied for from outside of the UK. In addition, immigrants from outside of the European Economic Area have to pay a health surcharge for the length of their visa amounting to about £200 a year for adults and £150 for children.

According to Jason Danley, an academic at Oxford Brookes University, accepting his job today would cost 54% more than what he paid two years ago, when the fees were already so high that he could not afford more than three-year visas for himself, his partner and their two children.

One oversees academic from outwith the EU who does not want to be named says: “In recent years, foreign-born academics in the UK have faced an increasingly precarious existence. Not only do many of them work on short-term, or even zero-hour, contracts, but attaining a working visa in the first place has become increasingly tricky. This makes applying for stable, long-term work incredibly difficult.”

Ultimately, despite the best intentions of the Scottish government, it may be unable to influence the rules for EU students and employees in a post-Brexit Britain. Everything hinges on the negotiations.

But according to Wright, Brexit is the least of the Scottish universities problem. The sector is facing an economic challenge irrespective of the EU. “It makes no sense to educate anyone at undergraduate level for free because the universities are losing money on these people,” he says.

As for Bertagna, she is looking into dual citizenship for herself and her daughter. The family are part Italian. If the queues for EU passports are anything to go by, she is not alone.


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