It is a relief to find a book entitled A Future for Scottish Higher Education, and without a cautious question mark, too. There is a depressing tendency to see Scottish higher education in terms of past glory days (lads o' pairts lugging sacks of oatmeal to distant centres of excellence) or a ghastly limbo (nobody breathe until Dearing has pronounced).
Ronald Crawford, secretary of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, which produced the book, stresses in his introduction that it does not aim to second-guess the Dearing inquiry into higher education, nor to draft a blueprint of the sector's future shape. "Rather is it an attempt to present a vision of higher education from the distinctive Scottish angle which the authors see as the way in which our approach to higher education is set to develop in the post-Dearing era," he writes.
This does not imply any "Little Scotlander" outlook. The viewpoint shifts between the local, national and international in a pragmatic and unselfconscious way. Much of the credit for this must go to Crawford, the book's progenitor, for his shrewd choice of topics and authors. These frequently interweave: the knowledge revolution and the high-tech network of the University of the Highlands and Islands project; the changing map of qualifications, and the links between further and higher education institutions. A recurrent underlying theme is the advantage offered by the small scale and coherence of the Scottish higher education system, and the capacity for key players from various spheres to come together. Andrew Miller, principal of Stirling University, in an excellent chapter on research, highlights the strategy to commercialise the science base, supported by Scottish Enterprise and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. But relations between industry and higher education are not as smooth as they might be, according to John McClelland, vice president of Digital Equipment. It is stimulating to find a captain of industry with a sound knowledge of higher education teasing out what he sees as the sector's inadequacies. He calls for much greater variety in terms of the timescale and resources for first degrees. He believes the majority of industry's needs could be satisfied by graduates with a sound basic education, which they can apply from their first day in work, backed by strong personal skills.
His contribution is followed by a spirited defence of the humanities by John Laver, vice principal of Edinburgh University and chairman of the British Academy's humanities research board. Laver also wants a shift in funding structures, which he argues fail to recognise the national social and cultural asset of humanities research, and therefore prevent it from making its full potential contribution to the quality of life. Further special-interest pleading, also backed by cogent argument, comes from Chris Carter, deputy principal of Dundee University, for art and design, and from Gordon Kirk, principal of Moray House Institute of Education, for teacher education. Carter questions whether the role which art and design could play in Scotland's economic and cultural development is recognised. Kirk bewails government reluctance to fund a new partnership between universities and a network of federated schools, which he believes would fully integrate the repatriated universities into Scotland's educational life. Sir Graeme Davies, principal of Glasgow University, offers no consolation in his snappily-written chapter on funding. He states bluntly that individual institutions' ability to choose whether they face purgatory or opportunity is likely to be determined by external events. However true that is, this volume proves that Scottish higher education has no lack of "bonnie fechters" aiming to shape external events for their own ends.
Olga Wojtas is Scottish editor, The THES.
A Future for Scottish Higher Education
Editor - Ronald Crawford
ISBN - 0 9521691 5 0
Publisher - Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals
Price - £10.00
Pages - 224