Challenges and opportunities for Scottish HE

Challenges and opportunities for Scottish HE

Sarah Shaw, Partner & Head of Odgers Interim’s Education Practice, and Rebecca Brandwood, Higher Education Consultant, discuss the Scottish higher education market and the key drivers bringing challenges and opportunities to the sector

Scotland’s universities have seen an increase in applications of 2.5% compared with last year. As a nation of top-tier higher education institutions, with three of the 19 universities in the country being in the top 100 in the world this year, the country is seeing rising opportunity to grow and develop its higher education offering. This, however, does come with a number of critical challenges universities will be up against this year.

Here are the key challenges and opportunities higher education institutions in Scotland will be facing in the coming year:

Post-Brexit fallout

When discussing the future of the UK, it is hard to not touch upon the impact of Brexit. With a sweeping remain vote in the referendum, Scotland is pushing hard to mitigate against the potential damage to the economy resulting from exiting the EU. These repercussions are expected to escalate after the 12-month post-Brexit transition period with particular impact in Scotland on the already seen skills shortage in the country. For the HE sector, many EU staff have applied for settled status which has brought some certainty in the short term, but the recruitment process for highly skilled academics and management professionals from the EU is still unclear with concern over difficulty in applications for rights to work and the ambiguity of the potential status of their spouses and family.

The higher education sector has reflected this country-wide concern in the collaboration across Universities Scotland, UCU Scotland and NUS Scotland by signing an open letter to EU staff and students in the country to assure them of their continued openness to internationality. This expression of support, however, needs to be evidenced with fully fledged concession planning to give more concrete security for EU staff and students.

As the UK exits the EU, universities across the country are focusing on making a strong case for continuing participation in European research networks. Scottish universities are among the world’s leading educational institutions for research, producing more scientific academic publications per researcher than competitor nations but with 10.1% of funding coming from EU sources, it is critical they have a clear strategy for securing alternative funding streams. This can be strengthened with the upcoming REF2021 research assessment. A positive outcome will not only open doors by reinforcing the already built EU relationships but can help place Scottish universities on a global level to compete for international funding opportunities.

To tackle this challenge head-on, higher education institutions in Scotland need leaders with strong academic research backgrounds, with commercial nous, who are able to manage this process, build relationships with key stakeholders and promote the university’s participation in world-class research.

2020/21 Scottish budget

Over the last twelve months, reports from the European Universities Association (EUA), Audit Scotland and Fraser of Allander all suggested there will be cuts in higher education funding in Scotland. This led to a collective push earlier this year from across the Scottish HE sector in the run up to the 2020/21 budget to urge the Scottish Government to make education a priority in funding allocation.

It was announced that the total education and skills budget will increase to £3.5bn over the year with colleges and universities having an increase in funding by £22.1m. This extra financial support has been noted but NUS Scotland has responded to the publication stating they are “disappointed there has been no attempt to restore funding to the level that our universities and students need”. Going forward, universities should be looking to hire experts to lead change management in efficiency programmes resulting from continued stretched budgets. This will include analysis of funding sources, looking at how to expand revenue streams and manage financial pressures such as pension and estate costs.

Another important announcement from the budget is the guarantee of free tuition for all eligible Scottish or EU-domiciled undergraduate students studying in Scotland in 2020/2021. This is a short-term promise with no statement made for future security of EU students looking to study in Scotland post-Brexit. This inability to commit longer term demonstrates how the uncertainty of the fall-out from the referendum vote continues. It is fair to speculate the government will need to consider a policy change, possibly looking to the student fees and funding model applied in England.

Universities must be considering the competitive landscape and the design of a contingency plan for financial sustainability; the ambiguity over free domestic and EU fees and the potential impact on applications cannot be ignored. To manage this in the shorter term, universities should be targeting how to balance the growing opportunity for recruitment of international students outside of the EU ( applications to Scottish universities from international students from outside the EU increased 20% this year) with the potential loss of EU and UK applications.

Inclusive economic growth plan

There has been discussion across the higher education sector in Scotland of forming closer partnerships between universities and businesses. The end of 2019 saw Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli publish his ‘National Mission report’ outlining recommendations for how higher education should be part of a wider nation-wide collaboration to drive economic development and it saw the Scottish Council for Development (SCDI) and Universities Scotland release a joint statement on their shared ambition to drive Scotland’s sustainable and inclusive economic growth. When speaking to our interim executives placed in Scottish institutions, there has been encouragement around this escalating point of discussion on the future of the country for the practicality it provides as a solution for skills shortages and current low levels of business productivity.

As this national agenda continues to gain traction, there will be increasing numbers of partnerships such as the ORCA Hub – an initiative which has five universities and 31 industrial partners collaborating on the development of robotics and artificial intelligence. Partnership success will be enhanced by utilising experts in building external stakeholder relationships with industry partners, government officials and policy agencies.

Quality Enhancement Framework (QEF)

The QEF in Scotland was created by a partnership between the Scottish Funding Council, Universities Scotland, the Quality Assurance Agency and the National Union of Students. The framework is structured to identify ways to improve the student experience in order to encourage institutions to aim for excellence. An integral component to this HE review is the input of student representation to balance the perspectives and data points put forward in conducting the assessment.

This framework to measure student experience and teaching quality facilitates institutions to consider continuously the importance of the student experience and teaching methods and requires a persistent team to drive the institution to progress year on year. Scottish universities should be appointing individuals to specialise in improving and enhancing the student experience as opposed to having this responsibility as part of a wider remit. For this role there is potential for movement into higher education from other customer focused sectors, such as retail, e-commerce and even consumer banking. 

In the coming year, Scottish HE will be looking to embrace the rising opportunities and contend with the challenges on the horizon. It is expected the sector will be undergoing major changes to address these but will need to balance future demands with the past. Universities have entered 2020 looking forward but also have to maintain plans to adhere to previously implemented alterations to policy, such as the Higher Governance (Scotland) Act 2016 which is continuing to make an impact on higher education.

For more information please contact Sarah Shaw and Rebecca Brandwood,


ALISON WALLS at 07/09/2020 16:45 said:

Hello, I wanted to know has the above changed as a result post covid 19 and the reporting issues faced by higher education institutions
Alison Walls

Sarah Shaw at 08/09/2020 18:05 said:

Thank you for your comment Alison. Covid-19 has certainly had a huge impact on Scottish higher education institutions. There will be significant financial implications due to the impact on international student recruitment and universities having to adapt and transform in a very short time-frame in order to deliver academic and student services online.

As mentioned in the article there have been recommendations from sector leaders that Scottish HE has an important role to play in driving economic growth. We suspect the impact of Covid-19 will fast track this agenda and universities will play a crucial role in leading economic recovery in collaboration with government and businesses.

Professor Bill Wardle at 29/10/2020 15:17 said:

It is worth reflecting on the distinctive and divergent characteristics of Scottish universities on an individual basis. This may see them further exposed as a result of the pandemic. Pertinent issues are:

The high domestic domicile rate of undergraduates at Glasgow institutions (ie a large proportion live at home.) So, when hall of residence occupancy falls in line with decreasing international student flows, there isn't a domestication option ie fill them up with Scottish students. Universities may be at contract risk therefore ie penalty clauses owed to private residence providers for occupancy rates below, say, 85%;

Exposure to falling international numbers. In descending order St Andrew's, Edinburgh and Glasgow have a high percentage of international students;

Exams/assessment fiasco(s) in Scottish schooling, with grade meddling and inflation on the part of the Scottish Government threatening the reputation of universities. The currency has been devalued.

As if these contextual factors weren't enough, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) has launched a review of tertiary education, looking to re-set baselines, achieve coherence and reposition college and university education. It's early days, but it looks a horror show. Early and interim reports are verbose, repetitive and data-free. Smug and self-satisfied are defining characteristics and organising principles. It's a pretty overt stab at centralisation, asserting the power of central government, its docile funding agency (SFC) and very weak on comparative analysis eg silent on Augar. A combination of being exhausting without being exhaustive is not an encouraging start.

Philip Edward at 19/04/2021 09:46 said:

One should consult with an independent financial adviser to keep their future safe when there are aspects like Brexit that need to be taken into account. Thanks for the post, I loved it.

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