SNP ministers will have to increase their quota on the number of Scots allowed to attend university if they are to implement their pledge to admit more youngsters from poor backgrounds without squeezing out other school leavers, they have been warned.
Professor Andrea Nolan, the chairman of umbrella group Universities Scotland, told a Holyrood inquiry that some children will be displaced under the existing fixed cap system without more places being funded.
John Kemp, interim chief executive of the Scottish Funding Council, the quango that allocates universities’ public funding, agreed that some displacement would occur.
They also told Holyrood’s education committee that they had heard anecdotal evidence that British academics are being excluded from European research proposals as a result of the Brexit vote.
The evidence followed an official report published in July that a cap on places for Scottish and EU students, imposed so that free tuition is affordable to the public purse, has not kept pace with the increasing number of applications.
The Audit Scotland report said this meant it has become more difficult for Scottish youngsters to win a place and warned that implementing Nicola Sturgeon’s plan to widen access to more youngsters from poor backgrounds will have consequences for wealthier school leavers.
Ms Sturgeon has set a series of targets for universities to increase their recruitment among children from deprived backgrounds, with 20 per cent of their entrants to come from the 20 per cent poorest areas by 2030. This is almost double the current proportion of 10.8 per cent.
It emerged this week that universities are pressing ahead with implementing her demand to lower entry grades for youngsters from poor backgrounds and plan to launch a new nationwide scheme to attract more applications from them.
Prof Nolan said: If we are to increase places to hit the 20 per cent target without there being a change in demand, and in a fixed cap system, there is only one obvious conclusion, which is that some people will be displaced…That is the reality of where I see we are now.
She also called for clarification on whether students from other EU member states will continue to receiver free tuition in the 2017/18 academic year, pointing out admissions have already opened. Ms Sturgeon later told MSPs that negotiations were underway.
Mr Kemp said he would not deny that more places would be required if more disadvantaged students are to be admitted without displacing others, but noted the targets are longer term.
Speaking afterwards, Liz Smith, the Scottish Tories’ Shadow Education Minister, said: This would not only be deeply unfair but very damaging to Scotland’s economic potential.
Professor Nolan and Mr Kemp were clear that the accompanying funding structure which is based around the inflexible ‘cap’ system for domiciled Scots, needs to be restructured so that the university sector can be put on a more sustainable financial footing. This is a blunt message for John Swinney.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: This is simply not an accurate reflection of Mr Kemp’s evidence. The number of funded places available in our universities has increased for 2016/17 by 1,734, enabled by over £1 billion investment from the Scottish Government this year.
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