MORE university places could be offered to Scots to make up for an expected drop in international students as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

However, umbrella body Universities Scotland said this could only happen if there is no financial penalty as the institutions are already facing a £500 million deficit in 2020/21 because of the pandemic.

“Filling places with Scots could be useful in the short term as it could create opportunities for young people at a time when everybody is expecting high unemployment – but it could also exacerbate the financial problems facing universities,” said a Universities Scotland spokeswoman.

Places for students domiciled in Scotland are free and funded by the Scottish Government but the funding does not cover all the costs.

“At the moment places are underfunded somewhere in the region of between £1500 to £1800 per student and that has created a big funding problem for universities,” said the spokeswoman.

The shortfall is covered by the fees from international students but the pandemic has raised concerns that their numbers will fall significantly, exacerbating financial problems caused by the current lockdown.

Those problems were outlined in stark terms on Friday at the Scottish Parliament, when the Education Committee was told the financial situation was “dire” and an “existential threat” to some institutions unless there is more help from both the UK and Scottish governments.

Income at Edinburgh University alone could drop by up to £150m, according to Principal Peter Mathieson, with much of the fall caused by fewer students from outside Europe whose tuition fees can up be to £30,000 per year.

It is not yet known how great the fall will be but anything between a 25% drop and a complete collapse has been suggested.

Professor Mathieson said all universities were now looking at their “future size and shape” as a result.

“Obviously, if we are receiving a smaller number of students and many more of our staff are working from home – which I do anticipate will continue to be the case for some time to come – then we may not need the scale of buildings and facilities that we originally thought we needed,” he said.

It certainly looks as though the first term of the new academic year, which begins in the autumn, will look very different from the pre-pandemic past.

Most institutions are planning to open on, or as near as possible to, their original start date but Universities Scotland said it was “looking increasingly likely” that much of the first term would be taught online.

“Student safety has to come first,” the spokeswoman said. “At the moment it feels unlikely there will be a large scale return to campus come September and October.

“Traditionally student communities have students coming from all over the world and who are mixing in close proximity. That poses a huge number of challenges to be managed.

“There are not a lot of definites at the moment which is very difficult for everyone but it looks like some students will have to be started on online learning.

She added: “It is increasingly likely that term one will be online and we will hopefully return to more traditional models from term two. But that could change over the coming weeks as we are getting new intelligence all the time.”

Freshers’ Week – that important rite of passage and introduction to university life for first year students – also looks like being mainly online.

“A lot of institutions are still planning for a multi-day welcome but it will be online. It is going to feel very different but it is still very necessary,” said the spokeswoman.

In their report to the education committee on Friday, Universities Scotland said it was clear the scale of the financial challenge was greater than the Scottish Government could meet from its existing budget and universities would need “decisive and strategic action” from both the Scottish and UK governments to get them through the crisis.

The report welcomed the Scottish Government’s “early, direct and frequent engagement” with universities to understand and address the challenges caused by the pandemic but said help was needed before they reached a “cliff-edge financial scenario”.

“Universities’ position as publicly funded organisations, but which are heavily dependent on income-

generating activity and rest of UK and international student income to subsidise the undergraduate teaching of Scottish/EU students and research, has left them hugely exposed to the economic impact of Covid-19,” said the report.

It warned there could also be a fall in the rest of UK (rUK) student recruitment for the 2020 intake in Scottish institutions. In 2018/19, there were 5455 full-time, first degree entrants to Scotland’s universities from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The report said that although applications were strong prior to lockdown and institutions remain engaged with offer holders, there could still be high rates of deferrals.

“rUK applicants may decide to stay close to home, and the student number controls introduced in England (designed to stabilise the market there) may impact recruitment in Scotland,” said the report.

It added that there would be no quick recovery for higher education finances.

“Any loss of undergraduate international student intake in 2020/21 creates a lost cohort, in effect, which means a four/five-year cumulative loss of revenue,” the report said.