Ensuring Scotland’s universities remain at the heart of Covid-19 recovery
Richard Lochhead, Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science
Scotland’s universities and their research are considered to be among the very best in the world.
Indeed for centuries, they have been acclaimed for genuinely ground-breaking discoveries across a raft of key areas, from medicine to engineering, economics to science, the environment, business and industry.
But I would argue that some of what’s actually going on in Scottish research right now, may well go down as our universities’ finest hour – their rising to the unprecedented scientific and practical challenges presented by coronavirus (COVID-19).
As well as quickly developing mitigating strategies to minimise any negative impact on their own activities, our universities and their researchers have proved equally adept at responding positively to the global challenge of identifying vaccines and other issues related to the pandemic, including the best ways of prevention and of caring for those afflicted by it.
This ranges from simple offers of premises, equipment, staff expertise and student time to support NHS Scotland and social care services, to free learning resources and donations to foodbanks.
But they also involved some vital action, right at the very heart of the UK’s national response.
The Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow have proved pivotal members of the Genomics UK Consortium of top scientists, for instance, and their leading-edge labs have been used to sequence the genome of the virus isolated from Scottish patients.
Edinburgh is also taking part in a key research project as part of the UK Government’s to find a vaccine for the virus, while the university has been running 1,000 COVID-19 tests a day within its laboratories, in support of NHSS services.
Leading experts at the University of Stirling are set to test a prototype facemask that could help prevent further spread of the virus in a new study launched just days after the UK and Scottish Governments indicated there may be benefits in wearing face coverings.
These are just a handful of the dozens of examples of hugely relevant and pioneering COVID-19 related projects tackled in recent weeks, which have underlined not just how our researchers remain key drivers of innovation to support the Scottish economy, but that the country remains a universally recognised centre for work taking place on public health and other societal issues, globally.
While this fantastic new research has been going on, however, COVID-19 has also dealt a financial bodyblow to our universities as a whole – a sector that is reported by Universities Scotland to generate around £7 billion in annual gross value added in Scotland and employ directly almost 50,000 staff.
Scottish Government baseline funding for our universities’ research and innovation was worth £290 million in 2020-21, and previously this funding has enabled universities to secure more than £280 million in UK Research Council spending on competitive university grants, studentships and fellowships, and 687 million euros of funding from the EU Horizon 2020 programme.
Latest Scottish Funding Council figures predict the impact of COVID-19 in the current academic year alone will be around £72 million in lost university income, and up to £650 million in the worst-case scenario in 2020-21.
A large part of that is blamed on an expected fall in the numbers of arriving international students, to which Scotland is particularly vulnerable, given we have the highest percentage (23%) of international students of any of the four UK nations.
The SFC’s blunt headline prediction is all universities in Scotland will go into deficit as a result of COVID-19. And all this, at a time when Audit Scotland has already suggested the financial impact on them of leaving the EU could be around £211 million.
While Scottish university researchers are at the very heart of a wonderful national effort to save us from COVID-19, they now need urgent financial help, to safeguard their own vital work.
And that’s why I was keen to act quickly, in the shape of a one-off £75 million payment last week to the university research sector.
This will help secure the vital, highly skilled jobs and research student placements they need to concentrate fully on planning and securing the longer-term sustainability of our research base, which is likely to continue in the effort to finding ways to fight the outbreak at home and abroad, post COVID-19.
Although a sizeable amount in a tightly constrained public funding context, this £75 million uplift will still be insufficient, however, to fully compensate for next year’s anticipated levels of lost income.
So I am actively making strong representations, as is the sector, to the UK Government to highlight the urgent need for additional financial assistance to our universities.
I have written directly to Michelle Donelan, Minister of State for Universities to urge her to develop a robust financial support package to ensure our world-renowned universities can continue to play a key role in the UK’s economic and social recovery from the pandemic.
Last week, we welcomed aspects of a UK Government’s support package for universities, such as enhanced clearing and a new UK research taskforce, in which I’ll take part.
But we were hugely disappointed there was little to benefit Scottish institutions, and that the package missed a golden chance to send out a stronger message – fully recognising the importance of our universities as key strategic economic and social assets which we need to protect at all costs, especially as they are likely to take leading role in our economic recovery as we emerge from the pandemic.
Our £75 million Scottish response is immediate, ready cash being offered to safeguard a vital resource – but this investment just has to be complemented by far more substantial UK financial support.