Alastair Sim: Higher education must remain central

The seventh of May was an extraordinary night. A Conservative majority in Westminster and a landslide victory of 56 SNP MPs means the next five years promises to be anything but dull. Universities Scotland congratulates every Scottish MP, new and returned, and the SNP on achieving such a remarkable result.

As higher education is almost entirely devolved to Holyrood anyone would be forgiven for thinking there is not a lot for Scotland’s MPs to get stuck into when it comes to universities. However, some big issues of direct relevance to our universities are reserved to Westminster including billions of pounds of funding in the UK research councils, immigration and some aspects of innovation policy. That’s before we consider the indirect impact of policy and funding decisions taken for universities in England and the rest of the UK on universities here in Scotland.

Our universities are able to make the strongest contribution to Scotland when both Holyrood and Westminster deliver a supportive policy and funding environment. We will be looking to Scotland’s 59 MPs to help us secure this at a UK-level.

Universities have a big role to play in Scotland’s ambitions for a fair and equal society and a strong and inclusive economy. We create life-changing opportunities for people, whatever their background, to learn and to develop as confident and empowered individuals. Universities work as significant drivers of innovation and economic growth in their own right with £1.3 billion worth of exports, support for more than 140,000 jobs and the attraction of inward investment into Scotland. Our world-class research and its innovative application enables the growth of others with support for 18,000 Scottish SMEs and partnerships with big business. The centrality of the university role is recognised in the Scottish Government’s refreshed economic strategy and its “can do” plans for Scotland to be an innovation nation. Our economic role comes full circle and reinforces the contribution universities make to Scottish society. The economist Joseph Stiglitz believes that inequality is linked with low economic growth and productivity. He recommends the creation of a learning society at the heart of economic policy as it holds the potential to increase productivity and standards of living.

Turning back to Westminster, there are both opportunities and challenges facing our universities in a learning society. We need to see the opportunities realised so that universities can deliver more for Scotland.

Most urgently, we need to see the return of a competitive post-study work offer to international students. This is win-win. It would help attract and retain more highly-skilled people to Scotland and help Scotland address its skills gaps, tackle its demographic challenges and associated productivity issues. Our home students benefit from enrichment of the learning experience by the presence of different nationalities, cultures and perspectives preparing them to be global citizens and much sought-after employees. Universities’ contribution to Scotland’s exports would also grow as a result, supporting Scotland’s economic growth through the fees and off-campus expenditure of international students. There is cross-party support for the Smith Commission’s recommendation to be taken forward in discussion between the Scottish and UK governments. This is a priority and we ask for the support of all of Scotland’s MPs to help deliver this.

Europe is also of key importance to Scotland’s universities. It is essential to us that the UK opts to stay in Europe. Europe is our key partner in teaching, research and a rich source of funding that supports vital research of direct relevance to Scotland and creates jobs and growth. The freedom of movement of staff, students and ideas across Europe builds a higher quality and more competitive higher education. Scotland’s universities and MPs must work together in making the case for Europe.

Scotland gains from being part of a UK-wide ecosystem for research and innovation. Almost £1.6 billion of research funding is allocated annually to universities in the UK by the UK research councils. Last year Scottish universities brought more than 15 per cent of Research Councils UK funding back to Scotland through successful competition. There are additional pots of funding for UK-wide innovation programmes including Innovate UK which support “catapult” centres of business-focused innovation. Scotland has catapults in renewables and high-value manufacturing. We need to be sure that all future policy and funding decisions taken on cross-UK research and innovation continue to be inclusive of Scotland’s interests.

Whilst there are a great many things that unite them, Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions have very different origins, characters, specialisms and strengths. This should be celebrated and protected as policy and funding decisions are made in Westminster (and Holyrood). Such diversity is an asset for Scotland in much the same way as our MPs will bring their diverse backgrounds, life experiences, personalities and priorities to their roles. We look forward to getting to know them and helping them to get to get to know us. There is much I hope we can achieve together.

Alastair Sim, Director, Universities Scotland

This piece originally appeared in The Scotsman on Thursday 21 May 2015 titled ‘Much to learn in the post-7 May world‘.