Scotland’s universities and colleges deliver a wide range of benefits to individuals and communities, and so most of us will have an interest in how they are performing, particularly in this time of significant change and uncertainty for the country’s public finances.
On Thursday, the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee hears from Auditor General Caroline Gardner and Audit Scotland teams – myself included – on reports we’ve recently published on the higher education and college sectors. Members will also hear from the Auditor General on challenges facing Edinburgh College, and Glasgow Colleges’ Regional Board.
I was part of the team taking Audit Scotland’s first look at the entire higher education sector, which attracts a growing number of students and is internationally renowned. More than 50,000 students from outside the UK came to Scotland to study in 2014/15, and almost all Scottish universities deliver higher education abroad, either by running overseas campuses, through partnerships with other universities, or through distance learning.
In 2014/15, the Scottish Government provided over £1.7bn in funding, made up of direct funding to universities and financial support to individual students, such as paying tuition fees and funding student loans. Our report raises important issues about the use of public funding, and the challenges facing both universities and the Scottish Government if the sector is to stay successful, and if the Scottish Government’s policy ambitions are to be achieved.
For example, one of our key findings is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Scottish students to get a university place in Scotland. There’s a need for greater understanding of trends in applications, offer rates, and acceptances to assess what impact Scottish Government policies are having on access to university for Scottish and EU students. This is one of several recommendations we make in our report, touching on areas such as student support, widening access and the role of the Scottish Funding Council (SFC)
The review of higher education was followed by Audit Scotland’s annual look at the performance of Scotland’s colleges. This piece of work was managed by my colleague Stuart Nugent. You can listen to Stuart discuss the key findings of that report here. Though colleges and universities are very different bodies in a number of ways, both sectors face challenges. In the case of colleges, substantial reforms have transformed the way that they operate and deliver services.
Our latest review of the college sector found that it is financially stable and achieving learning targets, whilst still adjusting to the big changes it’s experienced in recent years. However, several issues remain outstanding if the full effects of government reforms are to be understood and addressed by the sector.
Like universities, the college sector is experiencing changes within its student population – though for different reasons – such as growing numbers of under-25s in full-time education and reductions in women and over-25s. Our report states that the Scottish Government, the SFC and colleges need to work together to improve their understanding of demand for courses across the country, and create long-term plans for how they will commit finances and staff to meet future need.
Both of these reports have generated a lot of ongoing debate about the future challenges facing the respective sectors, and how to manage them. The Scottish Government and SFC have responded to both reports ahead of Thursday’s meeting and once we present our findings to the Public Audit and Post-Legislative Scrutiny Committee, members will then decide what action they would like to take to continue their scrutiny of the sectors.
For our part, the audit teams will continue to explore ways to engage with stakeholders on our recommendations and share the knowledge we’ve gained through our work. For example, I’ve been travelling round the country since July, presenting our findings at universities and sector events and it’s been really interesting to hear the range of views on what approach should be taken to deal with the challenges ahead.
We’ll use this feedback to consider how we can focus our future audit work on education, and will post updates on our website as that starts to take shape.
About the author
Kirsty Whyte managed our audit of higher education in Scottish universities. She has worked at Audit Scotland for over 12 years undertaking performance audits on a wide range of topics across the whole of the public sector, including school education, the use of locum doctors in the NHS, and efforts to reduce reoffending.