Wednesday, 13 April 2011
More on Scottish universities and their funding
Little-by-little, the debate on Scottish universities - including about their purpose and their funding - is coming out into the open, and about time too. Until the last few days the leading political parties in Scotland have all come out against any form of fees in Scottish universities, whether up front or payable after graduation; the only honourable exception to this picture is provided by the Scottish Conservatives, who do favour fees, but they are not exactly expected to be forming the next Scottish government after the May elections.
However, just about anyone who can manage primary school arithmetic can surely see that the funding sums for the Scottish universities just don't add up. Without fees or some other, as yet unknown, source of extra funding, Scotland's higher education sector faces a looming funding 'black hole', probably of the order of £100 to £200 million per year, with some estimates coming out even higher than this. These numbers are big enough to spell trouble ahead for the sector, with job cuts almost inevitable, and increasing difficulty in maintaining (let alone improving) teaching standards and working conditions. In the competitive world we live in, leading academics will be lured away to greener pastures elsewhere, either down in England or further afield; and institutions will find it harder to attract the best students. Not a happy prospect.
This is the background to two articles published in the Scotsman newspaper earlier this week.
The first was written by Stewart Sutherland (Scotsman, 12/4/11), and he argues that the universities need clearer goals and a clearer sense of purpose to enable them to move on from the breakneck expansion of the past two-three decades, supported only by the woolly idea that 'university education is a good thing.' What do we expect of our universities in Scotland, how large should the system be, and how should it be funded? These vital questions have been ducked for far too long, so Lord Sutherland - a former Principal of Edinburgh University - is quite right to raise them. Coherent answers are long overdue!
It seems to me, though, that he might be on rather shakier ground when he proposes that those parts of the system from which most public money is being withdrawn - notably in the arts and humanities, and in the social sciences - should simply be privatised to free them from government regulation. In principle this is a nice idea, but I am sceptical as to how it might work in practice. This is because the Funding Council will still control a large chunk of the public funding going to each university, and this fact will make it all too easy for institutions to be 'leaned on' to make them do what the Council wants even in unfunded areas of activity. I just don't believe that such an opportunity to exercise some control would be resisted.
The second article was by John McTernan (Scotsman, 13/4/11). He rightly decries the politicians' denial of any sort of Scottish university funding crisis and is clearly very concerned over the prospect of what he calls an academic brain drain from Scotland - the best academics moving away in response to better conditions elsewhere. Here I think he is right, though the process of decline will not be a rapid one. Indeed that's part of the problem, as it's very likely way beyond the likely time horizon of our politicians. So who cares?.............
Where I would take issue with Mr McTernan is over the following statement from his article, 'A pure market solution is not right, equality is an outcome that should be sought.' This is surely nonsense. The first part is a red herring. For we never get 'pure market solutions' in the real world, as they are always constrained by institutions, customs, regulations and the like. The second part just cannot be right. It's certainly a good idea to offer people equality of opportunity, to the maximal extent possible, and we should design institutions and policies with that in mind. But to aim for equality of outcomes would be socially inefficient - and taken literally it is not even a very meaningful goal. For surely we don't intend that, for instance, everyone should go as far as a PhD; and neither would we like a situation in which no one got a PhD degree. When thinking about equality, therefore, it is important to use our terms rather carefully.
So at last, how the universities in Scotland should operate and be funded is finally coming out into open discussion. With luck, once we get past the May elections, even our Scottish politicians might start to have some more sensible thoughts. I'm always an optimist.................