Scotland’s universities will need bespoke support from UK and Scottish Governments to get through COVID-19 crisis

Universities Scotland has today [Monday 4 May] responded to the UK Government’s announcement of a package of support measures for students and universities designed to respond to the unprecedented circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whilst further clarity is needed on some of the details of the package from a devolved perspective, today’s announcement is unlikely to deliver financial support on the scale needed. The future of Scotland’s universities will be dependent on a combination of the UK Government’s willingness to act in the interests of all UK universities and on Scottish Government action to support universities as a major asset in Scotland’s fight against the pandemic and social, cultural and economic recovery from it.

Universities Scotland has been clear that the scale of the financial challenge facing Scotland’s universities as a result of the pandemic requires a response from both Governments. Scotland’s universities face losses of at least £78 million in the current year and losses of c.£500 million in 2020/21 based on conservative estimates. Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions are largely devolved but remain part of the UK’s higher education ecosystem with some significant sources of funding reserved to Westminster.

Key details in the UK Government’s announcement include:

  • a clear intention to work with the devolved administrations to support higher education throughout the pandemic, including devolved participation in a new Research Sustainability Taskforce to be created.
  • measures specific to universities in England, including the introduction of student number controls for admissions in the autumn and funding “brought forward” for the England-only Quality Research Grant to support research.
  • clarity that it expects the suite of measures announced today, combined with existing business support schemes, to “be sufficient” to help stabilise most providers’ finances. The UK Government will only intervene further if and where individual institutions face the risk of closure.

Responding to the announcement, Professor Andrea Nolan, Convener of Universities Scotland, said:

Scotland’s universities are going to depend on both Scottish and UK Governments agreeing a shared approach to ensure that appropriate financial support is targeted at a level that will help them navigate this crisis and be fit to support both Scotland and the UK’s post-pandemic recovery. Scottish higher education is mostly devolved but with a very active role in the UK’s higher education ecosystem. It puts Scotland’s universities in a very different place to universities in England and that necessitates a bespoke, twin-track response, crafted to acknowledge and respect that difference. We’ve had assurances from both Governments that they recognise this and will reflect it in their approach.

While today’s announcement concentrates on immediate measures to protect students’ interests in England, we support its acknowledgement of the need for the UK Government and the devolved administrations to work together to protect higher education’s contribution across the UK. The proposed Research Sustainability Taskforce can help with this, and we welcome devolved participation. Beyond that, we need a partnership approach from the UK and Scottish Governments to ensure the right support reaches Scotland’s universities.

Scotland’s universities are taking all the steps they can to mitigate the financial impact of COVID-19 and are exploring the appropriate use of existing Government support schemes. However, our higher education sector is very exposed to the impact of COVID-19 because of the extent to which funding structures have necessitated a reliance on international tuition fee income. Financial support from both Governments, over and above the existing UK schemes and ‘re-profiling’ of grant, will be necessary to ensure the quality of education delivered to a generation, protect jobs and the sector’s sustained contribution to the common good.


  • The UK Government announcement can be found on the Department for Education’s website.
  • Universities Scotland published a brief estimating the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions in the current academic year (2019/20) and next year (2020/21). Universities in Scotland are facing a minimum of £78 million losses in the current year and c. £500 million losses next year based on a scenario which sees a 50% drop in international students coming to Scottish institutions. In practice, institutions are modelling a potential drop in international students in the range of 25-100%.
  • Last month, Universities UK prepared a paper for the UK Government on a package of measures that would be needed to support UK universities.
  • Today’s announcement from the UK Government advised that £100 million of research funding for universities in England will be “brought forward” from 2020/21 and delivered through the English-only Quality Research Grant. It also announces £100 million available to the Department for Education in the UK Government to purchase land or buildings from universities. It is not clear from the announcement what, if any, consequential funding might be made available to the Scottish Government as a result of these commitments.
  • Today’s announcement also confirmed the creation of a new Research Sustainability Taskforce. To be created by the Department for Education and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, it will work with the Devolved Administrations to consider how best to respond to the challenges universities face on research as a result of Covid-19, and so university research can continue to support the UK’s economic recovery following the crisis.
  • Scotland’s universities have been a vital part of the response to fight COVID-19 and protect the NHS and will have a key role in the delivery of skills, research and innovation as part of the recovery. Find out more about the sector’s contribution to fighting the virus at #WeAreTogether