Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Funding higher education in Scotland

Since mid-November, this blog has been silent, largely because I was still out in the Caribbean - specifically St Kitts and Nevis - working on the EU-funded technical assistance project mentioned in a couple of earlier posts. There just hasn't been enough time to keep up with what was going on in higher education back home in the UK, while also working on my project. Now I'm home - after a day's delay due to snow at Gatwick (and the Caribbean is not such a bad place to be stuck for an extra day!) - and have enjoyed a quiet, relaxing family Christmas, so the time has now come for me to start catching up.

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).
In the first of these points, the word 'anyone' is ambiguous. I assume it means anyone resident in Scotland, for otherwise Scotland might find itself offering free higher education to the entire EU, and perhaps even more widely. I don't think anyone seriously expects this to be Scottish policy. But then Ms Smith is apparently opposed to fees in general and is not happy about the idea that Scottish institutions might charge English students significant fees, even when Scottish students enjoy free access to higher education. However, what would then stop large numbers of English students from migrating north to enjoy good quality - and free - Scottish higher education? This is not clear.

The second point argues for government funding of the university sector, but in conjunction with the first point it seems to imply a disturbingly open-ended financial commitment. For if anyone suitably qualified can get a Scottish university place, and the government has to pay, then the scale of the Scottish higher education system is determined wholly by the effective student demand. In a world of shrinking budgets, this simply cannot make sense. No government, even in good times, would accept such an open-ended funding model, and in bad times it is completely out of the question.

So if the Scottish government accepts that there will be no fees - either up front or deferred - then surely it follows that it has to decide how large a higher education system it can afford to support. In other words, the scale of Scottish higher education - essentially determining how many students can be admitted each year - must be a government decision. Once the scale is determined, institutions would receive an allocation of places, and they would presumably determine whom to admit by setting suitable entry standards, sufficiently high to ration demand to the available places. One could argue that this would be a good way of gradually raising the academic standards across Scottish higher education, though it would be accompanied by a good deal of pain as some institutions down sized or possibly closed. On the other hand, I can imagine that some would see this as a rather elitist way of handling the current funding difficulties, something that the Scottish government might not be too happy about.

But again, if we are not to have fees for Scottish students, what are the alternatives? The only alternative that I can see is that our unit of resource - the amount we get from the Scottish Funding Council per student - could gradually be allowed to decline, enabling us to keep on admitting the same number of students as at present, or even more. However, the problem there is that it would be really hard to do that without drastically worsening the student experience, as we would have less and less resources for the sort of individual student-teacher contact that is so vital to effective higher education. Maintaining a reputation for high quality would be increasingly difficult under these conditions.

Hence my own - not necessarily very popular - conclusion is that we should either move towards a smaller, more elite higher education system in Scotland, fully funded by the government, or we start to accept the realities of life and adopt some form of fee-based system, preferably something like the English model with no up front fees and future repayments being income contingent - this seems to me very fair.