The Civic University: A Scottish Perspective

Alun Thomas, Head of Education Group at Anderson Strathern, outlines the issues around civic engagement for universities in Scotland.

In contrast to the world as it exists for higher education institutions (HEIs) in England and Wales, the position north of the Border has remained relatively stable for Scotland’s 19 HEIs over the last few years. With education devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish National Party’s vow to scrap tuition fees was honoured when they first came to power ten years ago. That means that Scottish domiciled students pay no tuition fees to study at Scottish universities. Under the current European Union (EU) membership arrangements, EU students also share that benefit. It is only what we call “RUK” (Rest of UK) students from England and Wales who are charged the equivalent fee that would be levied were they to be studying in their home country.

As a result, Scottish universities retain an umbilical relationship with the Scottish Funding Council (SFC). SFC continue to play a key role in the distribution of Scottish Government funds. They retain much of their reporting function that others will recognise as more akin to the old HEFCE regime in England than the newer (and yet to be fully explored) relationship with the Office for Students.

Student numbers are still capped and, as a result, we are yet to see the sort of open competition that appears to be being experienced south of the Border.


Whilst it is difficult to generalise, and hard evidence is not yet available, my perception is that the Scottish population continues to be proud rather than critical of higher education in Scotland. One institution has recently witnessed its Vice-Chancellor announce his retirement following critical coverage of one of his appointments. It also had to cope with the irony that this was the same individual who produced the Report on University Governance in 2012, which espoused the view that universities were part of the wider idea of the ‘democratic intellect’ and should behave in a transparent and accountable manner. Despite this, much of the criticism of Vice-Chancellor salaries and student claims around the quality of teaching and value for money seems to be focussed on activity south of Hadrian’s Wall.

Widening Access

In Scotland, government is driving the access agenda and, while much is now focussed on early years, all HEIs are being encouraged to play their part in creating opportunities for the economically less advantaged. Universities Scotland is currently consulting on a vision statement for 2030 that proudly reports that universities are “a force for social inclusion, doing all that is within our power to widen access. We have turned around our approach to making offers to undergraduate study to bring in more students from the poorest 20 per cent of neighbourhoods (SIMD20). The offer rate to students from SIMD20 postcodes is now the same as to applicants from SIMD60-80; and since 2013 students applying from SIMD20 and SIMD40 postcodes received offers at a higher rate than would have been expected based on their grades and subjects.”

This is no mean achievement. Post-1992 institutions such as Glasgow Caledonian University and the University of the West of Scotland have long adopted a position that they are there for the learners in their communities as well as those further abroad. Their achievements in this area are such that they debate the value of measures that focus on incremental growth in targeted student numbers. Other more “traditional” seats of learning have learnt to play their part too in different ways, so that Scotland’s oldest university, St Andrews, now runs Reach and Gateway programmes targeted at recruiting students from rural and SIMD20 communities.

Regional Impact

Universities in Scotland continue, as Universities Scotland’s vision statement reflects, to be “a transformative influence on the cities and regions we are part of. This contribution is economic, social, cultural and regenerative. We are deeply proud to be a part of the towns and cities we belong to and equally proud of our reach to support people in some of the most remote and rural parts of Scotland through distance and online learning; a key sector of the economy with an annual economic impact of over £7.1bn GVA from universities’ activities alone, multiplying every £1 of public investment into over £7 of economic impact; employers of over 43,700 people in high-quality jobs. a major exporting sector, creating £1.5bn of export earnings from outside Scotland; magnets for direct external investment, with over £1.5bn of research funding and contracts from outside Scotland including 15% of total UK Research Council competitive investments; creating start-ups and supporting existing businesses to grow. We support over 18,000 existing small and medium-sized enterprises across Scotland every year, have helped to catalyse the emergence of new Scottish industries including life sciences, informatics and computer games.”

University of Highlands and Islands (UHI) 

The unique collaboration that is UHI is proud of the contribution it makes from its 13 college campuses and research centres and its 70 local learning centres. With tangible growth and success in the courses it delivers on Adventure Tourism Management in Fort William, they can look to the contribution that students have made to the town’s economy, the demand from which has led to the building of new student residences in a place that had no higher education provision 20 years ago.

Likewise UHI’s involvement in the Inverness City Region Deal – working with Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Highlands Council and NHS in Inverness – makes a meaningful contribution to the Northern Innovation Hub by enhancing health and social care provision via facilities at the University’s new School of Health. Last but not least, the collaboration with Ceolas on Benbecula in the Western Isles has created a world centre for traditional music and the Gaelic language that has seen an influx of international students. This is making a tangible contribution to the local economy and even beginning to reverse the flow of local young people from the Western Isles. UHI’s innovative use of technology and distance learning has meant that they can say that from a campus area the size of Wales they can create one virtual classroom, allowing everyone in the region and beyond to participate.

Dundee: City of Discovery

Given that Lonely Planet currently lists the City of Dundee as one of the top ten places to visit in Europe, I wanted to end this piece by having a look at the contribution that Abertay University and the University of Dundee have made to the regeneration of Dundee, both as a destination and as a place to study, live and work. It is not that long since Dundee was a sad example of a post-industrial city with a proud heritage of “jam, jute and journalism”, which had seen it as a significant player in the history of the British Empire. Then, it looked back to its glory days.

Now, Dundee is a vibrant, exciting city with two successful universities working together with Scottish Enterprise and Dundee City Council to enable it to open the doors on the new V&A museum in September 2018. Together, Dundee and Abertay contribute £886m GVA to the Dundee area and provide 18,500 jobs which represents, at 12.5%, the highest proportion of HEI employment in any part of Scotland. The universities have built a reputation for work in areas such as biomedical science and in computer gaming, which is the envy of many other places and leads to their courses and their city as being seen as the place to be. Why wouldn’t you want to visit “the City of Discovery”?


Scotland’s 19 HEIs are each different examples of what it is to be a contributor to the civic society of their communities in which they are located and which they serve. Queen Margaret University, Scotland’s smallest University nestled at the edge of Edinburgh, produces a steady stream of work ready nursing and health service workers. UHI delivers learning to students from 13 colleges and research centres and offers, in addition to its online facilities, access to 70 local learning centres. No institution is the same as any other, but each plays its own unique role in making the places in which we work and live more interesting, more successful and more sustainable. It is a privilege for us to be able to work with them.