Monday, 7 March 2011

Intelligent life in retreat

Sadly, it seems that in my posting of last September 22nd, 'Signs of intelligent life in Scotland', I was far too optimistic.

For by now, even before the on going review of higher education funding in Scotland has been completed, all the main political parties in Scotland have come out firmly against student fees, whether payable up front or after graduation. One suspects there is a touch of electioneering in the various pronouncements, given the forthcoming Holyrood elections due in the Spring. And some of the recent announcements have also claimed to find support in a recent Universities Scotland paper on the so called 'funding gap' facing the universities. The trouble is, this report came up with a range of numbers starting at roughly £100 million per year, rising to well over £200 million per year. Those against fees have opted to accept the lower estimate, because they think such a gap is just about manageable, though universities themselves seem to think the upper end of the range is more plausible.

So it's all looking very messy and unclear - and definitely not a comfortable time to be a university principal! This is not helped by the latest wheeze from our education minister, Michael Russell, suggesting that our university principals could be elected - presumably by staff (and students?) at their respective institutions - and could be subject to recall if their performance proved unsatisfactory. I know there have been complaints of late about the pay and perks enjoyed by some principals, especially at a time when staff lower down the hierarchy are being made redundant, but that's surely a matter for university courts to handle (perhaps more sensitively than they have in the past), and I'm very sceptical whether elected principals would perform noticeably better than the bunch currently in post.

That aside, where do we stand now as regards university funding in Scotland? The emerging model seems to rest on three pillars:

(1) block grant from Scottish government (paid through the Scottish Funding Council);
(2) fees paid by English and Welsh students studying in Scotland;
(3) fees paid by non-EU overseas students studying in Scotland.

Note that neither Scottish students, nor students from other EU-member states, would pay any fee (though for the latter, the Scottish government does make a payment to the universities).

Given the UK-level squeeze on public spending, item (1) in the above list is going to come under massive pressure. Hence unless Scotland proves to be staggeringly successful under item (3), our universities are heading for trouble, with budgets and staffing levels declining. Hence it is hard to disagree with Brian Monteith in today's Scotsman newspaper ('Vicious circle for Scottish universities', p27), where he sees our universities facing increasingly tough competition over attracting good academic staff and the best students. For universities south of the border will be increasingly well resourced and they will naturally tend to attract the best staff and students.

This decline in the relative competitiveness of Scottish higher education will not happen overnight, of course; these things take time. So for a while, our universities will keep going and in many ways they will look OK. Under the surface, though, teaching and research quality will slowly decline as existing highly rated staff retire or move away, and institutions prove unable to recruit staff of similar or better quality to replace them. Look ahead a decade or two, and Scotland's position in the world of higher education could easily have slipped back a good deal. That can't be a happy prospect for Scotland's students, or indeed for the wider economy.

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