Update on Higher Education in Scotland

In a year that has seen many changes across government and the HE sector as a whole, Dr Jim McGeorge, University Secretary & Chief Operating Officer at the University of Dundee, examines recent developments in Scotland.

From amendments in budgets, a new edition of the Scottish Code of Good Higher Education Governance to changes in safeguarding students, the Scottish HE sector has seen many developments in the last few months.

Here’s some of the main focal points:

Draft Scottish budget

The draft Scottish budget was announced on 15 December and saw a 1% cash increase in university funding, worth around an additional £13m to the sector.  While better than we might have expected, this still represents a significant real terms cut when set against inflationary and other cost pressures and in the context of real terms cuts every year since 2014/15.  In better news, the Scottish Funding Council announced last week that the full BEIS funding, allocated to Scotland as part of the ‘Plan B’ package of support while we remain outside Horizon Europe, will be passed on in full to Scottish universities.


The Scottish Government lost its case at the Supreme Court over Holyrood’s power to hold an independence referendum, so the likelihood of one taking place next year has receded.  Attention will now turn to the next UK General Election, which the SNP is proposing to fight on the single issue of independence with a view to obtaining a democratic mandate that forces the hand of the next UK Government to allow a referendum.

Scottish Code of Good Higher Education Governance

A new edition of the Scottish Code of Good Higher Education Governance has been drafted by Veena O’Halloran (formerly of the University of Strathclyde) in conjunction with a small advisory group led by David Duncan, along with me and Martin Fairbairn (formerly of the SFC).  It was discussed in some detail at a meeting of the Scottish Secretaries Group (the AHUA Regional Group in Scotland) and has now been circulated to a wide stakeholder group, including the unions, for formal consultation.  We anticipate the new version being published early in 2023.

Tertiary education purpose

The Scottish Government has developed a draft statement of the purpose of tertiary education, which has now been published for formal consultation with the sector and other stakeholders.

Student accommodation

There are challenges around sourcing private sector student accommodation in Scotland, with negative publicity earlier in the academic year in most University towns and cities.  This is mostly down to changes in legislation around tenancies and rent controls as well as issues post-Covid, but it looks unlikely that the situation will improve in the short to medium term.  In Scotland we are also seeing new developers reluctant to begin PBSA projects due to construction inflation and difficulties securing funding.

The Scottish Government has just published a report and associated research findings on the Purpose-Built Student Accommodation sector, which recognises a number of issues around lack of supply as well as affordability to students.  In terms of risk to the sector, it also talks about ‘anomalies of treatment’ between PBSA and the private rental sector, particularly around PBSA exemptions from certain aspects of private renting law such as the exemption from the 28-day notice period.  The report does not include final recommendations, which are set to be workshopped at the end of January and published thereafter.


I recently attended a meeting with Universities Scotland colleagues and the Minister for Further & Higher Education, where we met a female student campaigner who has lived experience of being raped by a fellow student, who then left the university they were at and, she believes, then applied to and was accepted by another university without the pending Court case being disclosed or detected.  She feels more could have been done to stop the individual getting into another university and potentially being a threat to other students.

Much of the discussion revolved around the sector’s approach to asking applicants about criminal charges and unspent convictions since UCAS stopped doing so.  Most universities are asking for these either at the application or offer making stage, but questions have also been raised about whether all do that each year for continuing students, what happens when a student transfers between institutions and how any information received is used.  There is also the matter of the length of time the criminal justice system takes to decide whether a case will come to Court and challenges around data sharing with other institutions about the findings of internal disciplinary procedures.  This all raises a great many complex issues around GDPR, data privacy impact assessments and natural justice as well as potentially the risk that there is varying practice across the sector.

As you can see, a lot has happened over the past year, both within the sector itself in Scotland and within the environment in which it operates.  And we fully expect 2023 to be equally ‘interesting’!