Written evidence submitted by National Union of Students Scotland (USC0008)




NUS Scotland welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Scottish Affairs committee and to highlight the unique challenges facing students and universities as a whole, in the midst of both the Covid-19 pandemic and the UK’s departure from the European Union.


NUS Scotland is a federation of over 60 students' associations in Scotland with member associations stretching from the borders to the highlands. We work to promote, defend and extend the rights of over 500,000 students, and apprentices, in Scotland.


This submission highlights some of the key points we urge the Scottish Affairs Committee to consider.




Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic or the impacts of Brexit, universities faced significant financial challenges. The 2019 Audit Scotland Report “Finances of Scottish Universities” showed that that universities have suffered cuts totalling 12 per cent in real terms over the last seven years to 2017/18. The 2018/19 budget dealt another real-terms cut to universities and the 2019/20 budget delivered real-terms protection at 0 per cent. In this period of time, our universities have become increasingly reliant on income from fee-paying students. Indeed, according to the same report from Audit Scotland, tuition fees replaced Scottish Funding Council grants as the single largest source of income for the sector in 2017-18,[1].


NUS Scotland welcomes the Scottish Government’s commitment to free tuition for Scottish resident full time degree students, but we recognise that our institutions deliver this at a loss. The Auditor General found that in 2016-17, universities recognised only 92.4 per cent of the full economic cost of publicly funded teaching[2].


As a result of Covid-19, it was estimated in July 2020, that Scottish universities faced a possible operating deficit of between £384 million and £651 million[3], in large part due to a reliance on fees from international students. We remain concerned that this financial dependency was a factor in decision making when students were encouraged on to campus.


NUS Scotland recognises the clear need to protect teaching and the quality of courses in our institutions and calls for job security for staff who teach and support students every day. Given the scale of the challenge facing our universities, we believe that the Scottish and UK governments should be ready to provide substantial public investment to support those institutions facing financial hardship.


In the long-term, the Scottish Government must ensure adequate public investment for our institutions so that they are safeguarded from economic shocks.




We welcome that the Scottish Government has ruled out the introduction of tuition fees for Scottish undergraduate students in light of the current financial circumstances facing the sector.


However, it needs to be remembered that, while there are no tuition fees for Scottish-domiciled students, education is not free – especially for the poorest students who are taking on the most debt to meet living costs. NUS Scotland continues to make the case for further improvements to be made to cost-of-living support for students.


Viewing international students as a ‘lucrative’ income stream for our institutions is shameful. We reject this mindset and the marketisation of the education system. International students are part of the fabric of our communities and positively contribute immeasurably to our society.


NUS Scotland has long called for an end to the exorbitant fees faced by international students. International students’ pay sky-high costs for their courses and accommodation, in addition to visa costs, and charges for healthcare. While we recognise the Scottish Government’s recent announcement that EU students will be charged tuition fees is ultimately a result of Brexit, NUS Scotland is disappointed that yet more students will be paying for their education.


We believe that governments, institutions, and society must ensure that Scotland is welcoming and inviting place to study and live.




In our recent survey (conducted in March/April) NUS Scotland found that 68 per cent of students in Scotland were concerned about their ability to manage financially[4]. Almost half of those surveyed indicated that the income of someone who supported them financially had been impacted. Over 60 per cent of students of those responding to our Covid-19 survey worked alongside their studies.


We remain concerned that the impact of Covid-19 on students this year may be even greater than last. While action taken by the Scottish Government to date is welcome, we need a longer-term plan. Without one, students face a cost-of-learning crisis. In the short term, we would welcome increased discretionary funding in the next Scottish budget to support students facing financial hardship. In the longer term, we believe significant improvements will need to be made to the package of cost-of-living support that is available to Scotland’s learners, so that they are properly supported to complete their studies.




We welcome the statement from the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science committing to fair assessment[5]. Given the disruption that students continue to face, NUS Scotland will continue to call for a “no detriment” approach to assessment. QAA define a “no detriment” policy as seeking to “mitigate against the impact of a set of circumstances, by ensuring that an individual is not unfairly disadvantaged by a requirement to change rules or regulations, in session.[6]” Some – although not all – institutions have committed to a “no detriment” approach.




We continue to call for all learning to move online – unless essential, such as lab-based and practice-based learning as we have done throughout the summer, and for students to be supported to learn from home if they are able. NUS Scotland welcome the recommendations of SAGE from their recent minutes from 21st September 2020 which states that all university and college teaching should take place online – unless essential. The papers stated that a package of interventions need to be introduced to prevent an “exponential rise” in Covid-19 cases. Amongst these measures is that “all university and college teaching to be online unless essential”[7].


To protect students, and communities, we believe there should be targeted support for students who are isolating and for online learning to be the default position where possible.


NUS Scotland remains concerned by the recent spate of outbreaks, and the welfare of students self-isolating. All accommodation providers and institutions have a responsibility to offer support to students.




NUS Scotland remains concerned that the new student route visa arrangements provide a set of significant barriers to students, including only enabling students from overseas with significant financial backing to study in Scotland.


All students from overseas, including those from EU, EEA countries and Switzerland will be required to have a visa via this system for courses starting from January 2021. As such, it is likely many more students in 2021 will be required to apply via this system yet the Home Office have not announced any plans to streamline this route in order to make it cheaper and easier for students to apply.


Our key concerns include racialised outcomes from discretionary interviews, complex and uncertain bureaucratic approaches requiring multiple applications of evidence, and profit-making companies preying on applicants.


Given the current global pandemic we would like to see the Home Office guarantee that all EU students who were due to start this academic year will be allowed to study visa-free in the UK, regardless of when their institution returns to formal teaching.


NUS Scotland would also welcome the introduction of a temporary student visa for students coming to study in Scotland for a semester or a year without having to apply for a full visa and occur the costs of up to £2,000. We remain concerned that without a solution for students coming to study short term, but longer than three months, they will be more likely to opt for alternative placements in countries without the need for a visa.


Visa application system


Current students face significant challenges created by the visa system. Our goal is to ensure that the immigration system is fair and accessible for all.


As well as delays in start dates caused by an unwieldy visa application system, current students face other inequities. Students who interrupt their studies face uncertainty as they have to re-apply for a visa in order to return to education, at significant extra cost. This disproportionately affects disabled and pregnant students, who often have to pay for three separate visas (one to enter the UK, one to return to the UK and one for their child).


NHS Health Surcharge


Students arriving in the UK also face the recently increased health surcharge, which we are concerned paired with visa costs could be prohibitive to students from low income families coming to study in the UK. We would like to see this surcharge scrapped for all incoming students and those coming to work in the NHS.


Salary thresholds and inequity


Any salary thresholds imposed by the UK Government, even reduced ones, will have inequitable outcomes for individuals, in particular because women earn less. These are already in place for non-EU migrants and we have consistently raised concerns with the effects they have.


They mean that sectors whose pay is classically lower – including teaching in the higher education sector, or charitable roles within our members, may not be accessible to individuals who require a work visa. One particular outcome may be that international graduates may not be able to work up through lower paid roles in their students’ unions following the end of the post-study work visa period.


While some early-career researchers may be able to navigate around the salary thresholds, through the PhD eligibility requirements, there are many other teaching and support staff that students rely on who this will negatively impact.


Furthermore, this requirement is likely to cause problems for small and specialist institutions, for whom many of their teaching staff are freelance workers in other professions. These workers often will not receive the minimum salary threshold in a single employment but may earn the equivalent through several jobs. We would like to see flexibility shown in these instances.




Day-to-day students’ associations play a crucial role in representing and supporting students, driving national policy at the local level on their campuses, ensuring the quality of standards at their university, and much more. That role is all the more important as we address the challenges presented by Covid-19.


It is crucial that the Scottish and UK Governments, and our institutions, continue to recognise the key role they play in delivering a strong student experience and student voice at institutions across Scotland and ensure that they are properly resourced. Going forward, NUS Scotland strongly believes institutions have a duty to involve students’ associations in any conversations on responding to Covid-19.




While Covid-19 is rightly the priority of the sector at this time, we cannot lose sight of the impact of Brexit on students. Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ programmes have boosted the education sector’s ability to collaborate with EU partners for research projects, attracting global talent to the UK and giving our students invaluable experiences internationally. The funding platforms that the EU provides allows for all institutions to access the funding that they need for research, particularly PhDs and for students to study abroad at low cost.


We remain concerned that even if alternative research funding is identified to replace Horizon 2020 that students and institutions will miss out on the collaborative approach that Horizon 2020 brings. Horizon 2020 made almost €80 billion of funding available from 2014 to 2020. The data shows that the UK has performed very well in the ‘excellent science’ pillar of Horizon 2020, securing 19.4% of all funding from the start of the programme to September 2018. Looking at Horizon 2020 participations within the UK, seven Scottish HEIs were in the top performing 50 UK institutions securing €390M from the start of the programme to March 2018[8].


Currently around 17,000 UK students undertake study abroad opportunities through the programme every year and it accounts for 50% of all outward student mobility with Erasmus+ students in the UK generating £390 million for the UK economy each year. Over 2,000 students from Scotland study abroad through the Erasmus+ programme every year, and in total over 10,000 students have gone abroad through since the beginning of this programme in 2014[9].


Students and academics from the EU have an overwhelmingly positive cultural impact on UK campuses and students as well as in the wider community– their rights must be protected at all costs.


Erasmus is essential for outward student mobility and is an opportunity to explore other cultures while studying which is potentially a benefit to any student, both in terms of broadening their experience but also because said broader experience makes them more active and open people and part of a wider set of communities


It is open to all and supported so that regardless of the student’s circumstance they are able to engage with it – funding is provided for the experience (by contrast to gap year abroad opportunities, which tend to be effectively reserved for already rich students). It is also a ready-made platform for educational institutions to collaborate that would be very hard to replace either through a national scheme or individual partnerships between institutions.


NUS Scotland notes the importance of international programmes such as Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 and the recognises the benefits this brings to Scottish students and institutions- with Brexit fast approaching a suitable alternative or continued participation in these programmes must be found which protects inward and outward student mobility.




Excellent progress has been made in widening access to our universities– 15.9 per cent of Scottish-domiciled entrants to full-time first degrees in academic year 2018/19 were from the 20 per cent most disadvantaged areas. These figures are subject to change based on this year’s SQA results and the ongoing admissions processes at Scotland’s universities. We welcome that Scottish universities have committed to not allow progress on widening access to be derailed by Covid-19[10]. We hope to see institutions and the Scottish Government alike support students from poorer backgrounds to succeed in their studies.




The learner journey must remain a focus when thinking about the different routes into education. Making opportunities for progression and movement within institutions, and the attainment and success of students a priority. Schools, colleges and universities should work in partnership, fostering links to support the whole student learning experience. Some students enter higher education through vocational training, apprenticeships and work-based learning opportunities and so recognising that each student learning journey will be unique to them is important. NUS Scotland believes that measures must remain in place to ensure the quality of experiences for those who enter and exit at different points and stages.




To assure and to enhance the learning experience, it is crucial that the place of student voice is protected. The Quality Enhancement Framework for Universities offers an opportunity for self-reflection and partnership working which NUS believes we must continue to maintain, whilst also achieving progression within areas that are known challenges to the sector (such as attainment gaps and gender imbalances).


When it comes to reporting and data gathering we need to ensure that the right data is reviewed to ensure progression and institutional performance. NUS Scotland welcomes the focus on enhancing the quality of the student experience and equalities in the institutions Key Performance Indicators.




The climate emergency remains one of the most significant long-term challenges facing the education sector and society in general. With an opportunity to build a fairer, greener, more equal society the education system can, and must, play a pivotal role in helping transition society towards a net-zero future.


NUS Scotland continues to call for net zero emissions in higher education by 2030, ensuring that the sustainable development goals are embedded into education (including the curricula), research, leadership, operations, administration, engagement and knowledge exchange. Given the nature of this emergency NUS Scotland believes that institutions should be reporting annually on progress of sustainability and climate change strategy.


October 2020





[1] Finances of Scottish Universities, Audit Scotland, September 2019

[2] Finances of Scottish Universities, Audit Scotland, September 2019

[3] “Covid-19 Further and Higher Education Sustainability Plan”, Scottish Government, 9 July 2020

[4] “Covid-19 and Students Survey Scotland”, NUS Scotland, 14 May 2020

[5] Message to students on fair assessment from the Minister for Further Education Higher Education and Science”, 7 May 2020

[6] “No Detriment Policies an Overview”, QAA, 28 April 2020

[7] SAGE Minutes, 21st September 2020

[8] Scotland as a Science Nation, Universities Scotland, 2019

[9] “Study Abroad Statistics”, Erasmus+, 2020

[10] “Covid-19 Will Not Derail Progress on Widening Access”, Universities Scotland, 6 April 2020