Variable views of HE funding gap revealed
Starkly different interpretations of the funding gap between Scottish and English universities have been prompted by a new report.
The Expert Group report, produced by government economists and university representatives, said that as a result of the introduction of higher tuition fees in England, Scottish institutions would be hit by a shortfall of pound;200 million by 2014-15.
In contrast, the Scottish Government placed the net figure at pound;93m.
Its estimate incorporated a prediction of the extra income that would be generated by charging full tuition fees to students from the rest of the UK attending Scottish universities.
However, it did not take inflation into account and Universities Scotland suggests the introduction of higher charges - a proposed pound;6,375 annually - might see demand for places fall, resulting in a drop in income.
It is difficult to gauge the likely funding gap accurately because fees have not yet been agreed by all English universities. The average is expected to be around pound;7,500, but could be higher.
Acting convener of Universities Scotland Sir Tim O'Shea said: "An annual funding gap of pound;200m does not even represent the worst-case scenario. This may be exceeded, depending on English universities' final decisions on fees."
But, following a cross-party summit on the funding of higher education on Tuesday, National Union of Students Scotland executive officer Phil Whyte said the funding gap between Scottish and English universities was much lower than feared.
Backing tuition fees in Scotland would now be a "political choice, not an economic necessity", he added.
The disparity between the figures was brought into sharp focus by calls from a leading academic to set up an independent centre for the study of education funding in Scotland.
Walter Humes, visiting professor of education at Stirling University, said: "We need a genuinely independent centre for the study of the economics of education, one that covers the whole field and looks at the economic implications of all sectors."
Professor Humes told delegates at the Future of Scottish Higher Education conference, held in Edinburgh last week, that an unwillingness to scrutinise the detail of funding documents was a widespread problem. This had the effect of "limiting the impact of arguments" - including the case for preserving free higher education.
Being able to draw on a pool of expertise and data would allow funding decisions made at local and national level to be questioned much more forensically, he added.
Professor Humes pointed to the London School of Economics' Centre for the Economics of Education as a possible model for the project.