Tuesday, 10 May 2011

After the Election, What Next?

So now we know. The election results up here in Scotland could hardly have delivered a clearer verdict. For not only does the SNP remain the largest party in terms of the number of MSPs it has in the Parliament, but it pulled in enough extra votes this time around - contrary to what most political pundits were expecting - to give it an overall majority. Hence we shall continue to have an SNP government in Scotland, but now there will be far less need for the governing party to reach accommodations with other parties in order to get its legislative programme implemented. The SNP government will be able to do pretty much what it wishes, subject only to the unpleasant and regrettable realities of budget constraints and the like............

Quite evidently, at some point during the new parliament there will be a referendum on Scottish independence. Strictly speaking, however, this can only be advisory/consultative, since constitutional matters remain among the powers reserved to Westminster - and Scottish independence is a constitutional matter par excellence. At this point, it's hard to say how such a referendum might go. Opinion polls are not currently favourable to independence, but there's plenty of time for that to change, and one assumes the SNP government will start to explain to the Scottish people what independence would mean, in terms of lots of nitty-gritty practical details not currently widely understood.

Leaving that aside, the new SNP government will soon need to turn its attention to the thorny question of funding the Scottish universities. In the run up to the election, the question was largely ducked, with the major parties (other than the Scottish Conservatives) coming out firmly against any form of student fees, whether payable up front or taking the form of a graduate contribution (paid once the student has graduated and earning more than some threshold). The claim was that somehow, the Scottish government would keep the universities adequately funded without the need for fees (except for English students, and non-EU foreign students).

Well, we'll soon see about that!

For one thing, commentators who have looked in detail at the figures find that as compared to English universities, the budgets of the Scottish ones will fall short by at least £93 million per year, with more recent estimates - based on the latest information on likely fee levels in England - being as high as £300 million per year. That's a lot of money, and at a time of public spending cuts and competing priorities, it's quite hard to see where it might come from.

So what is likely to happen? Well, I think there are several possibilities, which I simply list:
  • An early U-turn by the SNP government, with a decision to introduce fees (I think this is not very likely);
  • Muddling along, with no clear decision, slow erosion of funding to the universities, slow decline in system quality (I think this is the most probable outcome);
  • Major restructuring to get system-wide costs down, with departmental closures in many institutions, job losses, possibly some mergers and perhaps even an institutional closure or two (this would all be politically quite uncomfortable, I imagine);
  • An alternative form of restructuring that would end the traditional four-year degree in Scotland, shifting the first year either back to secondary schools or to FE colleges - both of which are cheaper. Such a reform would reduce the undergraduate population in Scottish universities by around a quarter, in the new steady state, making possible substantial staff savings and diverse other economies.
We do indeed live in interesting times - watch this space!

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