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Axing 1,200 university places does not mean ‘swingeing’ cuts, says minister

Jenny Gilruth said additional places were funding during the pandemic when university attendance spiked (PA)
Jenny Gilruth said additional places were funding during the pandemic when university attendance spiked (PA)

Scotland’s Education Secretary has denied making “swingeing cuts” to universities amid confirmation at least 1,200 places for homegrown students will be axed next year.

Jenny Gilruth told Holyrood’s Education, Children and Young People Committee that “additional” places allocated to Scottish students during the Covid-19 pandemic are being reversed.

Deputy First Minister Shona Robison confirmed the move on Tuesday after the Times newspaper reported a spreadsheet released alongside the Scottish Budget suggested a 6% funding decrease to higher education would result in the first year university places being removed.

The intake of Scottish domiciled students in 2023 was 30,050, compared to 28,750 in 2019, according to figures from admissions service Ucas.

Jenny Gilruth
Jenny Gilruth said the move is part of efforts to balance the education budget (PA)

The removal of the estimated 1,200 places will take this year’s cohort to about 28,850.

The additional places were funded by the Scottish Government during the pandemic as a result of changes to the examinations process which caused a spike in university attendance.

Scottish Conservative education spokesman Liam Kerr said the cut will see universities struggle to meet the 2030 goal of ensuring 20% of admissions are students from Scotland’s 20% most deprived backgrounds.

He said: “Universities say they need more, not less, funding if they are to reach the 2030 target of widening access.

“Now the Scottish Government’s own analysis has identified significant risk that on the current model, there will be disadvantages to socioeconomically deprived areas.

“What impact does the Cabinet Secretary predict these swingeing cuts will have on widening access?”

Ms Gilruth said ministers have been “progressively” withdrawing the additional university places since the pandemic, with the estimated 1,200 the final phase of that.

Scottish Parliament
Tory education spokesman Liam Kerr said cutting the places will impact efforts to boost university access (Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail/PA)

Responding to Mr Kerr, she said: “I’m not sure I would characterise funding to universities in those terms.

“I have seen evidence from Universities Scotland which requested the funding for these additional places was removed and given to the sector to help respond to some of the points the member makes.

“In an ideal world, I would like to be sitting here saying exactly those things. But the reality is I need to balance my budget and I need to identify where savings can be taken.

“I’m not necessarily sure to the member’s point that I would characterise these removals – or the cuts – as swingeing.

“They are simply us moving back to where we were prior to the pandemic.”

Mr Kerr replied: “I think many people would characterise a cut of £28.5 million or 6% as swingeing.”

Ms Gilruth also took the same position as her Cabinet colleague Ms Robison, who is Finance Secretary, when she could not say whether the numbers cut would equal a reduction of around 3,800 student places.

Scottish Labour’s Pam Duncan-Glancy said the projection is “intolerable”.