Scotland

What are the challenges facing Scottish universities?

Students in lecture hall Image copyright SPL
Image caption Scottish students receive free university places at a Scottish university

The Audit Scotland report highlights one important challenge facing universities - the law of supply and demand.

The number of applications has increased faster than the number of offers being made.

By implication this means a lower proportion of applicants secure a place although the number of places available is around a record high.

In itself, a drop in the proportion who are successful is merely a mathematical fluke.

But it draws attention to a significant challenge as universities seek to attract students from a wider range of backgrounds.

One reason for the rise in the number of applications is likely to be that some universities have been proactively selling themselves to youngsters who may not previously have considered higher education.

Some schools and teachers may also have been pushing more borderline candidates to apply.

There has never been a guaranteed place in higher education for all who apply or merely meet the minimum requirements.

There are a number of interconnected issues.

The Scottish government sees free university tuition as an important statement of principle. It removes a potential deterrent to some applicants and helps keep down the overall amount of money graduates have to repay.

What price free university education?

The downside is that this, inevitably, means a fixed limit on the number of places available.

In contrast, universities south of the border - which can charge fees of up to £9,000 a year - have much more freedom to decide for themselves just how many students they can admit.

Some within universities in Scotland fear that the government's ambitions to increase the number of students from areas of deprivation could have an unpleasant side effect.

They fear that unless the overall number of students increases too, meeting minimum quotas on the numbers from disadvantaged areas could make it harder for everyone else to get in.

Some argue that universities - in theory - could actually find widening access easier were Scotland to leave the European Union.

At the moment, EU citizens (but not people from other parts of the UK) are entitled to free tuition at Scottish universities on the same terms as Scots. EU applicants are competing for the same places.

There is no possibility of the current Scottish government going down this route even after a Brexit but it could become a political debating point in the future.

The mood in Scottish academia was overwhelmingly in favour of Britain remaining in the EU for a wide range of reasons.

Ultimately, all policies have pros and cons. There is a price to be paid for free university tuition.

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