And a lot has been happening while I have been away, with the English decision approving higher fees for undergraduates studying at English universities from academic year 2011-12, the Welsh Funding Council announcement that it expects the number of higher education institutions in Wales to fall in the next two-three years, Scottish and English Funding Council announcements on much tighter institutional budgets for the coming year and last - in Scotland - the recent publication by the Scottish government of a consultation paper on higher education funding in Scotland (the Russell Green Paper).
What really caught my eye this week, however, was an article in the latest Times Higher Education by Kate Smith, a lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University, in which she asserted, while referring to the above Green Paper: "Scotland must stand against tuition fees and preserve universal state-supported access to higher education or risk a return to Dickensian darkness". This is such a ridiculous statement, that I couldn't resist commenting on it here.
For a start, talk of 'Dickensian darkness' is just nonsense, whatever decisions are taken about funding Scottish higher education. Scotland has a good higher education system and some outstanding institutions, and that is not going to change in a hurry. It doesn't therefore seem to me very conducive to intelligent debate to have such apocalyptic warnings thrown around. Yes, of course, things could get difficult financially, and quite possibly some Scottish institutions might sooner or later need to restructure, merge, or even close down altogether in the coming years. But none of that, uncomfortable though it might well be, marks the end of civilisation as we know it.
The more sensible parts of Kate Smith's assertion really say two things, namely:
- Anyone who is suitably qualified should be able to get a place at a Scottish university (I assume this is what she means by universal access);
- Scottish universities should be funded by the Scottish government, with no use of fees levied on individual students (either up front; or deferred and income contingent as in the English system).