TOMORROW at 1pm, I’ll be joining students from across Scotland, as well as politicians, trade unionists and others, outside the Scottish Parliament to rally for our education and call for a reversal of the devastating cuts to tertiary education planned in the Scottish Budget for 2024-25.

The draft budget which was published in December would cut the total budget allocated to the Scottish Funding Council – the non-departmental public body responsible for funding further and higher education – by just over £100 million, representing a cash-terms cut of more than 5%, and a real-terms cut of more than 7%.

Within this, the net college resource budget will be cut by just under £60m, which is a real-terms cut of around 10%.

I don’t deny for a moment the challenges presented to the Scottish Government with this year’s budget – chronic underfunding by Westminster as a result of the vastly insufficient Barnett Formula consequentially leaves Scotland in a very difficult place indeed. But not an impossible one.

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As Deputy First Minister and Finance Secretary Shona Robison (above) said in the opening words of the budget statement, budgets are about choices. Many of the choices and priorities made in this budget are the right ones.

Continuing to invest in our NHS as an absolute priority, for one. A focus on building up Scotland’s social security system to protect Scots from the very worst of Westminster cruelty is another.

But in the context of an ever-changing world, a climate emergency and a self-proclaimed goal from First Minister Humza Yousaf to lift people out of poverty, it is not only disappointing, but an act of self-harm for the Scottish Government to issue such significant cuts to Scotland’s further and higher education institutions.

Simply put, education should be a priority for this government, but the draft budget makes clear that it’s pretty low down the list. The £144m dedicated to the council tax freeze, for example, would’ve more than covered the value of the cuts being imposed on our education.

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Budgets are about choices, and this Scottish Government chose to freeze a regressive tax – a move which will disproportionately benefit the better-off – instead of investing in universities and colleges which lead to the long-term betterment of society and are proven to be one of the most effective routes to lifting people out of poverty.

The notion that there’s little the Scottish Government can do to bypass the worst of Westminster cuts is easily disproved. The STUC published a paper in 2022 clearly outlining the options for taxation the Scottish Government has at its disposal to better fund our public services, which could raise an additional £1.3 billion per year in the short-term through existing legislation, and up to £3.3bn per year in the medium-term through legislative reforms.

This additional revenue could transform our public services – including our education system. It’s true that much of this reform could take time to implement, but I reject this rebuke entirely from a government which has been in power since 2007.

There should be no excuses not to be fully utilising Scotland’s devolved powers to move towards a fairer, more progressive system of taxation, and the baby steps taken so far – particularly with regards to income tax – are welcome but simply don’t go far enough.

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The impact of the cuts to universities and colleges this year cannot be understated. I’ll focus on universities first. It’s absolutely true that a huge amount of wealth sits within the university sector, with principals on six-figure salaries – some taking home several times the salary of the First Minister – and a small number of universities hoarding billions in reserves.

Meanwhile we’re seeing essential courses being cut in places like Aberdeen, which is cutting its single-honours language degrees, with significant job losses expected as a result.

These cuts are a symptom of an increasingly marketised education system where more and more decisions are financially motivated rather than being made on the basis of the wants and needs of students and society, and have been described as “academic vandalism” by the University and College Union.

The solution to this broken system is funded reform which invests in our universities for societal betterment and the net good of education, and which rebalances the wealth disparity within our universities – not more cuts to the overall resource budgets like those proposed by the Scottish Government, which will only exacerbate the problem.

In our colleges, however, the situation is even more dire. The most recent report into Scotland’s colleges by the Auditor General made clear that “addressing the challenges facing the college sector cannot be avoided or postponed”.

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Colleges have been chronically underfunded for several years – to the point that the situation can only be described as managed decline.

Essential courses and critical student services are being cut across the country, staff have been left with no choice but to strike to receive fair pay and conditions almost every single year of the past decade, and critical maintenance of infrastructure is simply impossible due to the severe financial pressures.

The colleges are not immune to mismanagement and poor prioritisation of funds themselves, but while facing cut after cut after cut from the Scottish Government, their precarity has rarely been more acute than now.

The key role colleges play in community education, enhancing their local communities and lifting people out of poverty is nothing short of essential to Scottish society, not to mention their crucial role in building the workforces of tomorrow. Without colleges, Scotland would cease to function. And yet, here we are, facing a catastrophic £60m cut.

The Scottish Government can no longer sit on its hands. Recent moves including their increase of maintenance loans by £2400 for the vast majority of Scottish university students are deeply welcome, but it’s not good enough to give with one hand while taking away with the other.

Scotland’s education system is broken. Students know it. Staff know it. Unions know it. And tomorrow at 1pm, we’ll make sure the Scottish Parliament knows it too.

Significant funded reform is needed to the financial model to de-marketise the system and support it properly. In the meantime, the Scottish Government must stop the cuts to universities and colleges and centre education as a key priority for Scotland moving forward.