A significant movement of peoples is taking place in Scotland, a phenomenon detectable by the sudden appearance of bulging rucksacks on young shoulders and the cultural diversity on the streets of our cities. It is the arrival of around 240,000 students for the new term at our 19 centres of higher education – 15 universities plus four specialist institutions.
Take a deep breath and say it again: 240,000. This is an astonishing number. It is one in 22 of the entire Scottish population. It is advanced learning on an industrial scale, culminating at the end of the production process in the awarding of degrees of widely varying quality, some of limited value.
How much longer can Scotland sustain this colossal trade in academic qualifications? A large part of the answer is to be found in the make-up of the burgeoning student population.
A mere 10 years ago, three out of every four students in our higher education sector were Scottish or Scottish-domiciled. That proportion has steadily declined – from 75% to 66%. Of those turning up for the first lectures of autumn, around 80,000 will be neither Scottish nor permanently resident in Scotland.
The student body is more heterogeneous than it has ever been: 21,000 are here from EU countries other than the UK, 28,000 from other parts of the UK, 29,000 from other parts of the world. Remarkably, the largest group from outside the UK are the Chinese, 7,500 of whom are studying in Scotland, ahead of the numbers from the United States and Germany.
When tuition fees were abolished for Scottish or Scottish-domiciled students and for students from other EU countries, the dispensation did not extend to visitors from other parts of the UK and the rest of the world, which left the universities free to develop a more international client base. The current profile of the student population shows the extent to which that lucrative business opportunity has been seized: tuition fee income from non-EU countries, for example, amounts to £438m compared with £140m a decade ago.
For Scotland's governing party, the abolition of tuition fees for Scots and EU nationals remains an article of faith. The beneficiaries are carrying a loan debt – an average of £11,000 – which is considerably lower than the burden faced by their counterparts south of the border. But there is a flipside to this apparently enlightened policy which is still not widely enough understood: Scots and EU nationals are competing for a share of a diminishing cake.
The Scottish government has drastically cut the money available to the Scottish Funding Council, the agency responsible for allocating resources to the 19 institutions. In the last seven years, the funding of universities has fallen by 13% in real terms, while support for capital projects has virtually collapsed. Far from widening access to higher education, Scotland's devolved parliament has overseen a cap on places for its own citizens and a consequent decline in the number of Scottish students from 167,000 in 2005 to 154,000 to 2015.
All this means that it is becoming ever more difficult for young Scots to study in their own country. The 'offer rate' to Scottish students – the percentage of applications which result in the offer of a place – fell from 57% in 2010 to 50% in 2015. Closer scrutiny of the stats reveals an even bleaker picture: fewer than half of the Scots applying to the four ancient universities (Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews and Aberdeen) do so successfully. The offer rates at Edinburgh (30%) and St Andrews (35%) are particularly low.
Scots determined to pursue a university course in Scotland have a better chance of being accepted at the so-called chartered universities (Dundee, Heriot-Watt, Stirling, Strathclyde), where two-thirds of the students are Scottish, and a better chance still at the newer universities (Abertay, Napier, Caledonian, Highlands and Islands, Queen Margaret, Robert Gordon, West of Scotland), where eight out of 10 students are home-based. But the overall picture is discouraging: the volume of applications from Scottish students continues to outpace the number of places available.
The upside of the demographic shift in the sector is that Scotland is now receiving a healthy mix of students from all over the world. The downside is that, in a country governed by a nationalist administration for the last 10 years, more and more young Scots – at the last count around 17,000 a year – are having to look elsewhere or abandon their hope of a university place.
Apart from the abolition of tuition fees, the SNP government has a second article of faith: that by 2030, students from the most deprived backgrounds should constitute 20% of the entrants into higher education. Ten years ago, only 9% fell into that category. The proportion of poor students is not a great deal better now – around 11%. How can the prospects of young people from disadvantaged Scotland be transformed in the next decade if funding goes on being squeezed? Audit Scotland, in a report last year on the financing of higher education, was right to be sceptical.
But the problem goes much deeper than one hard-to-meet objective. The sector as a whole is beginning to look unrealistically inflated, posing a large unanswered question: whether the model itself is sustainable for much longer.
As it happened, Audit Scotland's report was published only a few weeks after the EU referendum. The narrative may have been amended at the last minute to take account of the result, or it may simply have been a piece of prophetic thinking – but in early July 2016 the report was already flagging up serious concerns about the future of Scotland's universities.
What would happen, asked Audit Scotland, if changes in Britain's immigration policies made it harder for students to gain a visa and harder for them to stay in this country after graduation? What would happen if, consequently, Britain became a much less attractive destination for ambitious young people?
With the spectre of a hard Brexit looming over us, these issues are no longer theoretical. By the new terms of 2019 or 2020 – already here in strategic planning terms – the higher education establishments which have come to depend on international students for a major part of their revenue could be witnessing a calamitous loss of business. What then? Reintroduce tuition fees? Close or merge universities? These are questions on the exam paper that no one wants to confront. But a distant alarm bell is ringing – ever more insistently.
Research by Rachel Sharp