The number of university places for Scottish students looks set to be slashed under plans in the Scottish budget. 

Tuition is free for people who have lived in Scotland for three years prior to starting their course but it relies on money from the Scottish government.

The move will be a blow to Scottish young people wishing to study in Scotland and facing more competition for places.

Many Scots have already been forced to study elsewhere in the UK, where they have to pay fees, after being unable to get into a Scottish university because of the cap on numbers of home students.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “UCU already had major concerns at the real-terms cuts to university funding in the 2024 draft budget, but the suggestion of plans to cut the number of Scottish students able to study at Scotland’s universities is as alarming as it is shocking.   

"We’re calling on the Scottish Parliament to interrogate these proposals, and to ensure that Scottish students are able to access a university education which is properly funded.”

A report in The Times today says a line buried in a document published alongside the budget in December shows that funding to support “core teaching activities” at universities has been reduced by 6%.

The paper reported that a note accompanying that figure says cuts were also made during the last financial year, and there are now “additional savings to be made in the [higher education] sector including from reducing first year university places”.

The revelation that the number of Scottish students is likely to be cut to save money will put pressure on Jenny Gilruth, the education secretary, when she gives evidence to Holyrood’s education committee on Wednesday about the budget.

East Lothian Courier: Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth with Humza YousafEducation Secretary Jenny Gilruth with First Minister Humza Yousaf.   Photo PA.

Universities believe that even previous funding settlements did not give them enough money to properly fund places provided under the free tuition scheme, with the shortfall being made up through an increase in the number of fee-paying foreign students. This has led to an increased reliance on, in particular, Chinese and American students.

Colleges have also been hit by plans for cuts to their budgets in the coming year.

Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said that a £58.7 million or 8.4% cut had been announced in the budget but that no guarantees had been given about other forms of funding which were cut during the last academic year.

“Given that so much was removed from the headline figure for 2023-24, sometimes at short notice and sometimes without much transparency, colleges are keen to have more certainty about the 2024-25 budget,” she said.

Economists last week criticised the planned cuts to university and college funding saying investing in skills was important for economic growth.

João Sousa, of the Fraser of Allander Institute at Strathclyde University, told Holyrood's finance committee of his surprise at the cuts to college and university teaching.

He said: "I am surprised that that decision has been taken, given that skills are such an important thing: they can have long-term ramifications and they are an investment in human capital."

Noting concerns of fellow economist Professor David Bell, of the University of Stirling, he added:

"David Bell in particular mentioned the retraining element, which is key for industries that might no longer be viable in the long term and whose employees will be required to train to do something else.

"It also staves off the threat of inactivity among people who have been employed for a long time and who have built up capital in a particular industry. If we are training fewer people in areas that we might want to focus on, that is a concern, in my opinion."

Professor Bell told the committee: "I think back to things such as the national strategy for economic transformation and how the budget links up to that. It is not very clear to me how it does."

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said that the future of some institutes will be at risk under the new deal budget, which he said imposed a £28.5 million cut on teaching grants.

“That forces rock-and-hard-place choices for the Scottish government; either reduce the number of places at university or further deplete how much public funding spent on the education of every Scottish student,” he told The Times.

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“The availability of places for Scots is at a historic high but any change to numbers is immediately visible. The other option sits below the surface but exacerbates an already chronic set of pressures facing students, staff and the sustainability of institutions.”

According to the most recent figures, 33,880 Scottish students enrolled in their first degree, full-time, for the 2021-22 academic year.

Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies carried out before the budget found that providing free tuition cost the government about £900 million in 2022–23.

However, the research group found that this equated to £7,610 in direct public funding for each Scottish student this academic year, about 19% less in real terms than in 2013–14. It is also about £2,020, or 21% lower than the resources available for an English university teaching an England undergraduate in 2023–24, according to the institute.

Pam Duncan-Glancy, Scottish Labour’s education spokeswoman, said the cut to university funding “threatens to freeze even more young people in Scotland out of university”.

Liam Kerr, the Scottish Conservatives education spokesman, urged the Scottish Government to be “upfront about these cuts buried deep within their disastrous budget”. He said ministers needed to explain why university places were at risk when the government had “wasted so much money elsewhere on their own pet projects”.

He said: “It would be deeply damaging for many young people, who are already facing barriers to university entry due to the SNP’s arbitrary cap on student places, if even fewer places were available.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “While this is the most challenging budget to be delivered under devolution, the 2024-25 budget still allocated nearly £2 billion to universities and colleges — supporting their delivery of high quality education, training and research.

“Our student support offering and policy on free tuition supports more than 120,000 students every year and we have seen record numbers of full-time first degree entrants to universities coming from the most deprived communities in Scotland.”