This column first appeared in the Scotsman on 2nd Dec 2022. It can be found in situ here.
Back in 1997, I was something exotic. Of 12 in my first-year politics tutorial, this Dundee boy was the only non-Glaswegian – my generous term that banded together the city environs and what, up until a few years before, was Strathclyde region. The University of Glasgow was well known for having a very local intake in those days.
My uncle had driven me through to the open day, sat outside the history department smoking while I met the lecturers, and had then taken me for two pints in Tennent’s Bar on Byres Road, which was rocking with laughter and song by mid-afternoon. I was hooked on Gilmorehill from that day on.
Ten years after graduation I was back teaching in the very same seminar room. There was still a wee guy (not the same wee guy) in a Rangers tracksuit with a few Scots, but alongside him was as diverse a group of students as you could imagine. They had parents who had lived under eastern bloc communism or Spanish fascism. They hailed from rural Canada or an Asian metropolis. One young boy – who I suspected was a prince – had arrived from a Pacific island theocracy.
Teaching them international comparative politics was a joy and far more interesting than listening to me and 11 others saying how much they hated Thatcher must have been a generation before. International students have transformed our university classrooms and our communities. They make us richer in the most important and essential of ways. They have broadened our minds, our hearts and our palates. They have also made Scotland richer in a more literal sense. Scottish education is in effect the great export of our age.
The UK Government floating the idea of drastic caps on international students is a new front in the immigration culture war they are seeking to provoke across the country. It is economically illiterate. It will be a further hammer blow to our UK research community that is subsidised by international fees – hard on the heels of Brexit expulsion from the leadership of Horizon Europe research programmes.
In Scotland the impact would be much, much worse. The amount of money paid by the SNP government to our universities for a Scottish undergraduate has not increased in 13 years and so here we have become dangerously over-reliant on international fees to pay for the education of Scots students as well as research.
According to Universities Scotland, the real-term depreciation of Scottish Government funding for universities means in effect that each student now has £2,325 less invested in every year of their undergraduate education compared to back in 2014/15. Alex Salmond promised universities that the full cost of those students would be met when he decided to remove the graduate endowment. The money never materialised.
Recent evidence to Holyrood’s education committee, upon which I sit, has highlighted the extent of reliance on international fees to keep the system afloat. The prospect of an international shock, such as a Taiwan conflagration, looms large. A rapid collapse in the Chinese recruitment market would be devastating. That this latest potential shock instead comes from an ailing and grotesquely incompetent Conservative government should be no real shock at all.
Our cities in particular require support in coping with student numbers. It’s been reported that the size of the student population of my old University of Glasgow has grown by up to 40 per cent in recent years. Along with the wider crisis in our housing market, this has pushed capacity and resilience to the point of collapse and left prices soaring as a result. Edinburgh and St Andrews have seen the same impact.
The continued growth of international student numbers is also stretching public services, particularly if unexpectedly post-graduate students arrive with children for a local authority which must find space in school classes. A decade ago, the occupation rate of schools was far lower in many areas but a drive to merge and increase the ‘efficiency’ of education has meant a commensurate drop in resilience and the ability to cope.
The Conservative’s latest idiotic wheeze is flagged as likely applying only to ‘non-elite’ institutions. Of course it is. What on Earth that might mean is less clear. The University of Dundee sits outside of the world’s top 200 institutions but it has the finest life sciences standing of any university in the UK bar none and the greatest impact of any institution in the entire world on the pharmaceutical industry.
Will it make the grade? If not, we risk a further bifurcation in a Scottish higher education system that is already strenuously diverse with many universities struggling to make the balance sheet work under SNP strictures. The latest Research Excellence Framework figures show research performance improving in Scotland at a slower rate to the rest of the UK. Our capture of UK research funding has decreased from a celebrated 15 per cent to an admirable 12.5 per cent, against our ten per cent share of the population. Our lead is being cut and at an ever greater rate.
The reunion, in the end, was cancelled. Some folks said they just couldn’t afford it. There was a rail strike and the ferries to the islands were in chaos. Universities are not the only part of the country in need of two new governments with more of an interest in a better future, rather than chaotic decline.