Maintaining the status quo in Scotland: fiction or fact?

05 May 2011

One question concerning Higher Education in Scotland looms larger than all others on Election Day: where will the money come from to make up the potential 300m shortfall in university funding?

All political parties bar the Conservatives are committed to maintaining the non-existence of tuition fees for Scottish domiciled students. Yet all the evidence suggests that when tuition fees are trebled in England and Wales in 2012, the Scottish government will need to find hundreds of millions of pounds to give to their universities to make up the difference.

As history shows, Higher Education and investment in infrastructure and innovation to drive jobs and growth will be key to returning Scotland to a prosperous, knowledge-based economy. The RSC urges all successful candidates for the Scottish Parliament to implement policies that place the highest priority on investing in science, and chemistry in particular. An investment in the chemical sciences is an investment in Scotland's future, providing a sound basis for our economic, social and environmental well-being. This investment must be made to support inspiring teaching, excellent research and effective innovation.

One of the industrial sectors where the UK has world class skills and companies is pharmaceuticals. However, as the closure of the Merck Newhouse site near Glasgow shows, we cannot take this strength for granted. This closure is just one in a series of such closures on both sides of the border and, if anything, the trend appears to be accelerating. A national strategy to arrest this trend, or to find growth in related, high-technology activities, should be a top priority.

One area where chemistry will have a demonstrable impact is in the development of a low carbon economy. The Scottish Government has adopted an ambitious target for renewable power of 80 per cent of consumption by 2020. This will require more efficient, cheaper solar technology; less wasteful methods of producing goods; improved transport and energy storage technologies, such as batteries; the development of economically viable fuels and materials from plants, and improvements to nuclear power and waste storage. These challenges will generate thousands of highly-skilled jobs in the green economy.

The RSC recently responded to a Scottish government consultation: "Building a Smarter Future: Towards a Sustainable Scottish Solution for the Future of Higher Education".
The key issues raised in the response were::

  • Greater support for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects in Higher Education must be provided to generate a steady supply of talented, highly-skilled individuals.

  • These STEM graduates will become the next generation of scientists and engineers, as well as being members of a wider, more scientifically literate workforce.
  • Investing in the chemical sciences over the next 15 years will enable Scotland to tackle issues specific to its economy.

  • The Scottish university system must allow access to a range of courses with valued learning outputs, which should include flexible, part-time and work-based learning..

  • Access to the study of chemistry and chemical science based courses should be irrespective of the ability to pay.

  • Collaboration between the universities involved in the ScotCHEM partnership demonstrates the advantages of a pooled approach, with greater access to resources and high quality research.

In Scotland there are 12 universities and six colleges which have research and teaching excellence in chemistry and engineering. The recent nationwide Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) recognised that four of the UK's top 10 departments are in Scotland. The RSC hopes that any expected rise in the university funding shortfall does not jeopardise this proud position.

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