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Scottish Government Response to the Scottish Funding Council’s Review of Tertiary Education and Research in Scotland

The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) was asked by Scottish Ministers in June 2020 to review how best to achieve coherence and sustainability in the delivery of further and higher education during the Covid-19 crisis, EU exit transition, and beyond, while maintaining and enhancing quality. The review process was split into three phases. The last element, with a series of recommendations, was published in June 2021.

The Scottish government response can be found here.


  • Accelerated and deeper collaboration will be essential across all parts of the system. Ministers remain unconvinced that reforms in other parts of the UK that encourage greater competition between providers are appropriate to Scotland and will instead support and incentivise active, committed partnerships and collaborations across the sector (p3)
  • The government supports the development of a clear strategic, longer-term vision and intent for the future of tertiary education and research that incorporates multi-year funding assumptions and commitments. It will set out more clearly its longer-term strategic intent for tertiary education as soon as possible (p4)
  • SFC will lead the development of an associated National Impact Framework, that sets out the outcomes and impact that will be expected from colleges and universities, and how they will be assessed (p5)
  • SFC was given the go-ahead to explore options for a single quality assurance and enhancement framework for tertiary education (p9)
  • The response emphasised the importance of Foundation and Graduate apprenticeships as valued core part of tertiary provision (p5)
  • The SFC will explore further the development of a national micro-credential framework and will expect the sector and students to be closely engaged in this (p8)
  • SFC recommendations about dissolving Regional Strategic Bodies so colleges manage themselves, under a SFC remit, will be taken forward (p7)
  • SFC-convened Tertiary Provision Pathfinders will explore practical measures to better align tertiary provision with the needs of students and employers. SFC will also develop a more strategic and comprehensive Economic Recovery and Employer Engagement Investment Programme for colleges and universities and an Employer and Industry Advisory Group (p7)
  • The role of the Commissioner for Widening Access will be retained and there will be a refresh of widening access work, including the setting of targets, how they are tracked and how funds are invested (p9)
  • The Research Excellence Framework (REF2021) will inform a refresh of the Research Excellence Grant Distribution methodology for implementation in 2022-23. It will introduce a reporting requirement on the use of basic research investment and consider spillover effects.  SFC will explore the option of a base in Scotland House, in London, in order to work more closely with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and others  (p10)
  • A missions-based approach, around key societal challenges such as tackling the climate emergency and reducing health and wellbeing inequalities should be taken to support the evolution of existing SFC investments in the research and knowledge exchange infrastructure (p11)
  • The government is developing an International Education Strategy for Scotland to promote the education offer globally, increase the number of international students, and maintain links with the European Union. It will also work with stakeholders to develop a Scottish Education Exchange Programme and  to re-secure Scotland’s access to the Erasmus + programme (p11)

Implications for governance

Most of the recommendations for the sector contained in the SFC review of tertiary education and research  have been accepted by the Scottish Government.

One of the key priorities is the development of a National Impact Framework, which will set out the outcomes and impact that will be expected from colleges and universities, and how they will be assessed. The aim is to provide a more direct line of sight to Scotland’s National Performance Framework, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and the government’s longer-term strategic intent for tertiary education, which is yet to be published but is promised shortly.

SFC was also given the go-ahead to explore options for a single quality assurance and enhancement framework for tertiary education, which ministers said should “strike the appropriate balance between assuring and enhancing the quality of provision and recognises the distinct contribution and interconnectedness of each part of the tertiary system”. This will include a national level standard for online and blended learning, to ensure students and quality assessment frameworks are clear about expectations and effective practice.

Concerns have been expressed within the sector about the possible burden that SFC frameworks could impose on institutions. In their response, ministers said they expected the “refreshed accountability” plan to balance rigour and proportionality.

From a governance perspective, universities’ current strategic plans may well have to be reviewed in light of the new impact framework, while the implications of a new single quality assurance framework could be far reaching in a range of areas, from teaching and learning, curricula to reputational risk.

A strand running through the review and the government response is the need for closer working between the elements of tertiary education and “deeper, long term and less transactional relationships” between business, industry and academia.

To this end, SFC-convened Tertiary Provision Pathfinders were given the green light and are aimed at more integrated approaches to tertiary provision. According to the SFC, these pathfinders will “explore the necessary conditions for a more integrated tertiary funding model between institutions”. 

The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), two of the country’s most integrated institutions, will be used as a pilot to point the way to good practice. Given this direction of travel, universities will need to examine their arrangements with colleges and the implications of future “integrated funding models”.

A more strategic and comprehensive SFC Economic Recovery and Employer Engagement Economic Investment Programme is planned, as well as an Employer and Industry Advisory Group. The governance message here is that universities need to strengthen where possible, relationships with industry to ensure the sector is producing the graduates the economy needs.

This is reflected in the Government’s support for a new one-off SFC scheme to give students the opportunity for internships or short-term employment, as well as emphasis in the response on the importance of Foundation and Graduate apprenticeships.

The sector’s success in meeting the Scottish Government’s interim target on widening access (at least 16% of full-time first-degree entrants coming from Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation 20 areas) was lauded by ministers as a “huge achievement”. The government will retain the role of Commissioner for Widening Access, who will now take the lead in “refreshing” targets, tracking them,  and how funds are invested.

On research, the current UK-wide Research Excellence Framework (REF2021), will inform where research excellence lies across Scotland’s institutions. On the back of this, the SFC will examine its Research Excellence Grant distribution methodology in early 2022, the outcome of which may have funding implications for individual institutions across the sector. Governors will want to look out for SFC consultations on the principles of a refreshed distribution methodology which will be carried out in the later part of 2021, for implementation as early as 2022-2.

The government’s plan to develop an International Education Strategy for Scotland to promote the education offer globally, increase the number of international students, and maintain links with the European Union is likely to be welcomed by university finance committees, particularly given the impact of Brexit and Covid-19 on income from overseas students. How institutions’ own international ambitions align with the Strategy will no doubt be a matter of interest for governors.

These proposals potentially create further distance from the English model and it will be important for governors at English institutions to watch this carefully for lessons learned. Although England is not taking such a structured approach to tertiary education at this time, Westminster government’s thinking is based on ways in which higher and further education better relate to each other. There could be an opportunity for English institutions to get ahead.

Read the full response

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