Coronavirus (COVID-19): statement by the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science - 9 June 2020

Statement to Parliament given by the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science Richard Lochhead: 'Coronavirus (COVID-19): Supporting Further and Higher Education'

In the midst of this global health crisis, I want to start by paying tribute to our world leading universities and colleges.

The pandemic has placed unprecedented demands on the sector, yet the response of our colleges and universities has been quite remarkable given how quickly they had to adapt to a new set of very challenging circumstances – they could never have imagined.

They have risen to these challenges and we thank them for it.

I also want to put on record the significant work underway in Community Learning and Development to support some of Scotland’s most vulnerable adults and young people.            

That sector continues to deliver essential support despite the challenges of COVID-19.

I want you to know that your efforts have been recognised and are very much appreciated by the Scottish Government.

Presiding Officer,

We know the pandemic is an unprecedented external shock.

It requires Government and institutions to work together.

That is why I set up a Leadership Group as early as March, when the impact first began to emerge. 

This group brings together senior leaders across post-16 education – from principals to union leaders and student representatives – where we get round a virtual table to discuss how best to respond to the crisis.  

It is overseeing our work on a wide range of issues, including financial sustainability and digital poverty.

I’d like to thank its members for their tireless efforts.

Impact of COVID-19

 Presiding Officer,

The fact remains that Covid-19 is having a massive impact on our further and higher education sector.

On international student mobility, a drop in commercial income, and in charitable and industry research income, and other factors, that all combined pose a huge challenge to the sector albeit we won’t know for some time the full extent.

Of course, this is not just a Scottish or UK problem. 

This is a global problem.

 SG Response - FE & HE Sustainability Plan

And today, I’ve published a summary of our immediate support for our institutions and how we are looking towards what may be needed in the future.

Our further and higher education sustainability plan includes additional resources we have now provided –

  • £75m to protect world leading research
  • £10m for estates development
  • Development of an International Student Action Plan
  • Additional £5m across FE and HE student support
  • Early access to £11.4m of HE Hardship Funds

And importantly, our universities will also have access to grants and substantial long-term low interest loans that UKG announced on 27th June related to research.

But, I want to be very clear about one critical point.

Our colleges and universities deserve the utmost support because they are a vital part of the solution to the Covid crisis.

A fact recognised in the recently published Benny Higgins report ‘ Towards a robust, resilient wellbeing economy for Scotland’.

We are determined to place them at the centre of our economic strategy.

And that’s one key reason why I asked the Scottish Funding Council to lead a review of provision and financial sustainability to ensure they are able to play that role.

Its work will shape an important part of the Government’s thinking on our future strategy for tertiary education in Scotland.

Institutional health is one aspect of our plan. Support for students is another.

On-line learning has arrived with a bang for the sector.

And so have some of the subsequent challenges such as many leaners unable to enjoy the full benefits of connectivity.

On digital support, the Scottish Government has already invested over £40 million in supporting access digital technology.

I can today announce that we will now go further and invest an additional £5 million to help bridge the digital divide for students.

This will see investment in adaptive technologies for students with disabilities, increased online support, and, for the most disadvantaged, provide the devices they need to access learning.

Reopening of Sector

Presiding Officer

I am pleased to say that our colleges and universities will be open for business after the summer.

Students from Scotland, the rest of the UK and overseas can be confident of receiving the benefits of an excellent Scottish education.

And as the First Minister said in her message to international students this week, our prime focus will also be their safety.

From Monday, 13 July, time-sensitive mandatory or regulated skills assessments that are essential to the completion of Modern Apprenticeship qualifications or to comply with a legal obligation, can resume in colleges.

And from Wednesday, 22 July, colleges and universities can begin a phased return to on-campus learning as part of a blended model with remote teaching.

Appropriate safety measures, including physical distancing will be in place.

The advice is unchanged and 2 metres physical distancing remains the default. Institutions should continue to plan for the new term on that basis.

However, as we enter Phase 3 of the route map, exemptions will be considered for specific sectors and settings where agreed additional mitigations must be put in place.

This would allow organisations in relevant sectors, if they choose, to operate with a 1 metre distance on condition that agreed mitigations, fully recorded in risk assessments, are implemented.

We are now looking at whether such an exemption may be applied to colleges and universities in certain circumstances.

We will provide an update on this work as soon as we can.

Our approach throughout this crisis has been to ensure the continued safety of staff and students and I want to be clear that this remains our priority.

I know that for prospective, and continuing, students, this has been a worrying and uncertain time.

But our institutions remain world class, remain welcoming and open and – with the measures set out in our guidance – will remain safe.  

Today’s new UCAS figures showing a 16% increase in the number of non-EU applications to our universities – the highest in the UK – is an encouraging sign that the message is getting through.

Other Challenge – Brexit

Presiding Officer,

As if the monumental challenge of Covid-19 wasn’t enough, the challenges of Brexit are about to become very real.

Covid coincides with Brexit, presenting a double whammy for our universities and colleges.

Let me remind the chamber that is the UK Government turned its backs on Europe, not Scotland.

And now their chaotic handling of the entire Brexit process jeopardises the future success of our colleges and universities.

These institutions, our students and young people, and our research excellence have all disproportionately benefited from EU membership compared to their UK counterparts and will now be disproportionately harmed.

Impact of Brexit – Erasmus, Horizon

The Scottish Government has always been clear that its overwhelming priority is for Scotland to remain a part of Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 for their unparalleled educational, cultural and economic benefits.

Scotland gains a huge amount from these programmes.

We secure proportionally more funding under both than any other country in the UK.

We were told by UK Government, we would be ‘co-creators’ in building the UK’s future relationship with international mobility.

Instead, no-one will be surprised to hear that negotiations are frustrating and the tendency to consult us on decisions after they are taken continues such as a decision that any UK alternative to Erasmus would not subsidise inward mobility.  

We’ll continue to be open and constructive but the clock is ticking and I’m afraid the signals on Erasmus point towards a poor outcome for young Scots compared to the advantages previous generations enjoyed.

Equally, there is no good Brexit for university research and we are also still not any clearer about the future of Horizon 2020 and remember that Audit Scotland warned of a Brexit cost of £211m to our universities.

I will keep Parliament up to date with any progress in these areas.

Impact of Brexit - EU Tuition Fees

Even though the full impact of Brexit is yet to be seen, I must now set out its effect on EU tuition fees.

As a result of EU law, since this government abolished tuition fees, we have treated EU students in the same way we treat students from Scotland. They do not pay tuition fees.

It is only as a result of EU law applying in Scotland that this was possible – indeed it was mandatory.

Our EU law obligations cease at the end of the transition period.

And continuing with this arrangement from 21/22 would significantly increase the risk of any legal challenge.

Following the UK’s vote to leave the EU, I have previously announced that 20/21 was a transition year for the policy and it is with a heavy heart that we have taken the difficult decision to end free education for new EU students from the academic year 2021/22 onwards as a consequence of Brexit.

EU students who have already started their studies, or who start this autumn, will not be affected and will still be tuition free for the entirety of their course.

That is the stark reality of Brexit and a painful reminder that our country’s decisions are affected by UK policies that we do not support and did not vote for.

Our internationalism remains a key strength of higher education in Scotland.

So, we will discuss with the sector an ambitious scholarship programme to ensure that the ancient European nation of Scotland continues to attract significant numbers of European students to study here.

And Presiding Officer,

As a consequence of the decision we have taken on EU students we must also decide what happens to the funding that currently supports those places.

As I have today set out to Parliament, we are reviewing the overall financial position of the HE and FE sectors.

I can, however, confirm that we will not remove the funding we currently devote to paying EU student fees from the overall funding for the sector. On current trends and following further analysis, we estimate this could be up to £19m for 21/22.

And, as a result of that decision, this new flexibility for the sector should lead to an increase in the number of students from Scotland getting a place at university.

At a time when our young people face the economic impact of Covid 19, this will, no doubt, provide some significant support.


Presiding Officer,

As we respond to Covid-19, as we respond to Brexit, I want to emphasise to the Chamber that the continued success of colleges and universities is crucial.

It is crucial to our future economic prosperity.

It is crucial to our future social wellbeing.

And, it must be central to the recovery this country must now build.

Our colleges and universities provide our people with life chances, and skills, and are the engines that power our society.

They are a source of strength to our nation

And this Government will stand by them to meet the challenges and grasp the exciting opportunities that lie ahead.

I hope Parliament will join us in doing exactly that.


- Ends - 

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