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RGU at the Scottish party political conferences

By William Hardie, Policy Advisor to the Principal and the Executive - 18 March 2024

Continuing the University’s engagement in the Scottish party political conferences, and aiming to inform and influence political decision making, RGU recently participated in the annual conferences of Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives. Both fringe events were an opportunity to showcase the distinctiveness of what RGU has to offer, our strategic and collaborative partnerships.

The University’s Principal, Professor Steve Olivier, represented RGU on the panel at the Scottish Labour conference event in Glasgow in February, which was organised jointly by RGU and the University Alliance mission group. The session focused on the contribution of professional and technical universities. The other panellists were Vanessa Wilson, Chief Executive of the University Alliance, Michael Marra MSP, Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Rachel Johnstone, a third-year Fashion Management student at RGU. The event was chaired by Fergus Mutch, Managing Partner at True North. 

The session highlighted the varied ways in which professional and technical universities, like RGU, contribute to the economy. The close relationship between these universities and industry, coupled with the applied focus of the university programmes, including their work placement opportunities, mean that employers have access to graduates who are work-ready. This is borne out by the high performance of professional and technical universities, including RGU in Graduate Outcomes’ survey results. Rachel Johnstone spoke about the opportunity for work-based learning, entrepreneurship and a focus on transferable skills as being very important to her when she chose to study at RGU, and during her time at the University she has been able to experience work abroad as part of her programme. 

Much of the discussion centred on the gravity of the financial situation for universities, both in Scotland and across the UK. It was noted that the Institute for Fiscal Studies had recently estimated that the amount of teaching funding per Scottish student in 2023-24 to be 19% lower in real terms than in 2012-13. Meanwhile, the Scottish Budget means that Scotland’s universities are facing a £28.5M cut to their resource funding for the 2024-25 financial year, which can in reality only be met by a reduction in the number of funded places for Scottish students or by reducing the level of funding per student. Both options are unpalatable, and would have significant implications for provision and staffing at Scottish universities. Universities require sufficient and sustainable funding, allowing them to plan on a multi-year basis. This comes against a backdrop where a range of reports are forecasting that the number of graduates will need to rise to grow the economy, with the UK Government Unit for Future Skills estimating that by 2035, 86% of new jobs in Scotland will be at graduate level, and that almost 900,000 graduates will be needed to fill these roles. There are, however, no easy answers to addressing the financial challenge, with Michael Marra MSP saying that the first order priority should be to consider the outcomes sought, from the perspective of both the learner and the economy, and then to work back from that to develop the mechanics of the funding model. 

While universities’ recruitment of international students has, to some extent, been able to compensate for the long-term real terms decline in public funding, this is now under severe pressure given the changes to UK immigration policy and in a context of increasing global competition for international students. These factors have resulted in Scottish and UK universities experiencing significant reductions in the number of international students that they are able to enrol.

The reform agenda for Scotland’s post-16 education and skills system was commented upon. Concern was expressed that with five major reports published last year, encompassing around 130 actions and recommendations, many of which would have implications for Scotland’s universities, there was a risk of an incoherent approach to implementing the reforms due to a lack of strategic integration across the reports, and the absence of clear timescales for action, combined with no additional resource. 

Scotland’s approach to widening access to university was also discussed by the panel. While the positive progress that universities have made on widening access was recognised, the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) was considered to be a blunt tool for identifying disadvantage, particularly in the North East of Scotland. It was noted that RGU has been influential in helping to shift policy thinking towards a broader basket of measures from which universities can drawn from to support widening access. This would have the potential of enabling a wider range of learners to benefit from universities’ support for widening access. In this context, the breadth of RGU’s engagement with schools throughout the City and Shire was recognised in terms of raising aspiration and through exposing learners and teachers to a range of discipline areas and career opportunities. 

The discussion at the Scottish Labour conference attracted media attention, including a news article in the P&J. 


Meanwhile, Veronica Strachan, the University’s Vice Principal for Corporate Services represented RGU at the Scottish Conservative conference event, held in Aberdeen in March. This discussion session, focussing on the future of education and skills was held jointly with North East Scotland College (NESCol), where Veronica was joined by Neil Cowie, NESCol’s Principal, enabling the University and the College to demonstrate their close partnership working, while also discussing the distinct challenges facing each institution. The other panellists were Liz Smith MSP, the Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Finance, and Zoe Frieslick, a fourth-year Applied Social Sciences student who had joined RGU from NESCol with advanced standing through an articulation pathway. The session was chaired by Councillor Ryan Houghton, Leader of the Conservative Group on Aberdeen City Council. The session was hotly anticipated, with a full-house of around 50 attendees, with standing-room only come the start of the event.

Zoe Frieslick spoke about her journey from Banff and Buchan College, into the workplace, before enrolling at NESCol as an adult returner to education in order to improve her life chances. She felt that university was not an option for her when she was younger but her experience at NESCol had provided her with the subject grounding and confidence to enrol onto the applied social sciences degree programme at RGU, and the NESCol-RGU articulation pathway was ideally suited to her. 

There was a keen focus on the ways in which both RGU and NESCol work in partnership with industry and employers, and both institutions’ contributions to the region, including to key sectors such as energy and to health and social care. It was noted that approximately 40% of all learners across the City and Shire will come to NESCol once they leave school. The strength of RGU and NESCol’s joint work on curriculum pathways was also recognised, resulting in around 400 learners articulating from NESCol into RGU each year. 

Again, there was a significant focus on the funding challenges being faced by both the University and the College, despite their significant contribution to transforming lives and communities. Neil Cowie said the College’s revenue budget will be cut by 5% for 2024-25, which is compounded by the Scottish Government’s decision to withdraw the Flexible Workforce Development Fund which had enabled the College to deliver free training to employers in the North East. At a time demand is rising, NESCol has had to reduce the number of full-time places it is able to offer due to the reduction in its funding.

Veronica Strachan referred to the short-term nature of funding streams, as well as to changes to funding models, including changes to the way in which Graduate Apprenticeship places are funded and allocated. Institutions require financial certainty in order to plan and deliver provision, so short funding cycles and changes to the funding model present institutions with significant challenges. Concern was also raised about the lack of financial support for lifelong learning and there was a proposal that every learner should be entitled to a certain level of funding that they can use to access the learning opportunities that meet their needs throughout their life. 

Liz Smith MSP spoke about the criticality of education to unlocking people’s potential. She strongly believes there is a pressing need to address the way in which education funding is structured so that it can sustainably support Scotland’s universities and colleges. She referred to the need for a debate to be had on the funding model, and that ideally this would be done on a cross-party basis at Holyrood given the importance of the issue.

The University intends to continue to engage in the conferences of the other parties elected to the Scottish Parliament. 

Main image: Left to right: Vanessa Wilson, Chief Executive, University Alliance, Rachel Johnstone, RGU student, Fergus Mutch, Managing Partner, True North, Michael Marra, MSP and Professor Steve Olivier, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of RGU.

Centre image: Left to right: Neil Cowie, Principal NesCol, Liz Smith MSP, Zoe Frieslick, RGU student, Veronica Strachan, RGU Secretary and Vice Principal for Corporate Services and Aberdeen Councillor Ryan Houghton.

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