Westminster plan to limit the number of English students able to study in Scotland causes “considerable anger”

Scotland’s higher education minister has called the measures “disruptive and unreasonable”

Harry Keightley | Fri, 26 Jun 2020

The Westminster Government is to limit the number of students from England who can attend universities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This has caused anger among the devolved legislations who claim they were not consulted on the move.


The move is designed to prevent universities from offering excessive places to UK students to compensate for the loss of funding caused by the Coronavirus crisis. A reaction which would leave some universities struggling to recruit a sufficient number of students.


Richard Lochhead, the further and higher education minister for Scotland, said the proposals came “like a bolt out of the blue” and noted that there was “no consultation, generating considerable anger.”


“Putting up barriers that stop students going to Scottish universities is in principle wrong, and at this late stage is disruptive and unreasonable.”


Education is a devolved area of policy. Scotland may therefore set its own tuition fees. Scotland does not charge tuition fees for students attending its own universities but charges English students £9,250 a year. Under EU law Scotland cannot charge different fees for EU students, who may currently attend Scottish institutions for free. However, Fee discrimination within the UK is possible.


Kirsty Williams, the education minister for Wales, has said that the student cap plan “demonstrates a surprising unwillingness to respect complementary policies in each nation.”


Under the plans, universities in the devolved nations will have their intake of English students capped to an increase of 6.5% from the previous year.


The Government has claimed that the “temporary student number controls” will be implemented “to ensure a fair, structured distribution of students across providers.”


According to the Department for Education, some universities have adopted harmful admissions practices to mitigate the financial losses caused by the drop in prospective students. This includes the “mass use of unconditional offers” in order to recruit more domestic students than the previous year. This would leave “a much smaller pool of prospective students for other providers to draw from”. The DfE have warned that such practices “risked destabilising the admissions system and placed some providers at risk of significant financial strain”.


However, Higher Education experts have warned that a number cap will not prevent instability in the admissions system. Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute has warned that the cap is “too loose to be meaningful”.


“All universities will have a lot of spare places because of the drop in international students,” he said, “and this cap allows more prestigious institutions to suck up students from less prestigious ones.”


Michelle Donelan, the Westminster Government universities Minister, said: “We want everyone who achieves their entry requirements to be able to go to university, and the measures seek to ensure students have the widest possible variety and most suitable places to study in the coming academic year, while avoiding harmful over-recruitment among providers which could go against the interests of students and the sector. The controls will make adjustments to take account of offers already accepted before 1 June, and will make best use of taxpayer funding to support students.”


“We also understand the importance of supporting our vital public services at this time, which is why the government will allocate an additional 5,000 places for subjects such as nursing and healthcare and another 5,000 for key areas including engineering and sciences at high quality institutions.”


Mary Senior, the Scotland Official of the University and College Union, said: “Education is a devolved issue, and it is disconcerting to see the UK government directing Scottish universities on the proportion of English students they are able to take.


“We've been consistently pushing the UK government to join the Scottish government in providing additional financial support to universities in view of the Covid-19 pandemic, the international travel restrictions and the loss of international student tuition fee income that universities are predicting. The UK government's foray into student caps in Scotland underlines more clearly that they also need to be offering funding support to the sector at this time too.”


A University of Aberdeen spokesperson said the University was hopeful that the UK and Scottish governments could reach an agreement that is fair to all universities, in Scotland as well as England.

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