Scotland is understandably proud of its universities. They produce 1 per cent of the world's published research despite the country providing only 0.1 per cent of the planet's population. Five of Scotland's 14 universities are among the world's top 200 and collectively they educate a far larger proportion of citizens than any other constituent part of the UK.
It is equally understandable that the governing Scottish National Party should seek to capitalise and build on the country's academic reputation and success. Much was made by the SNP in the run-up to last year's elections about aiming to develop Scotland's knowledge economy by emulating the success and dynamism of its neighbours to the west and north, Ireland and Scandinavia. It is a laudable aim but a highly ambitious one when one considers that Scottish GDP growth has lagged behind that of the rest of the UK on average by 0.4 per cent per annum for more than 40 years. The SNP has pledged to match the UK average growth rate by 2011. Scottish universities, presumably, have a central role to play if reaching that target depends on nurturing a robust knowledge-based economy.
Until recently, Scottish universities received relatively generous settlements to enable them to compete with institutions south of the border. But Edinburgh's munificence cannot completely match the rich funding stream provided by tuition fees. English universities will earn an additional £1.35 billion a year more from fees even before the fee cap is lifted.
And now the SNP has severely disappointed. Instead of the £168 million increase Universities Scotland asked for over the next three years, the SNP has allocated £30 million. "There are no poor academics," a source close to the Scottish Government reportedly replied when asked to justify the decision. The party's immediate priorities are schools, nursery provision, council tax and the health service. For a party in minority government keen to entrench its popularity, that may be a justifiable gambit. For Scottish universities in competition with well-funded English peers and facing the prospect of funding a significant nationally agreed pay deal this year it is a perilously dangerous stratagem. Already there is talk of cost-cutting and redundancies.
Such measures would likely be precipitate. There is no immediate funding crisis, rather a lack of clear direction and debate about the long-term financial footing of Scottish higher education.
To address that issue the SNP has convened the Joint Future Thinking Task Force with Scottish universities. Several kites have already been flown, including fostering more collaboration between institutions at discipline level, leveraging in more private finance, reviewing the four-year degree and, it is whispered, encouraging mergers to achieve economies of scale. However fruitful those discussions turn out to be, no number of imaginative initiatives can get round the central problem facing the SNP: the chasm between its ambitions and Government resources. If it believes, as its ministers say, in free education from nursery to university, then the Government should fund it accordingly. If in addition it wants its universities to help achieve Nordic levels of economic growth, Nordic levels of investment would be appropriate.
As we now know, the SNP has decided it has more pressing priorities that render that level of publicly funded generosity impossible - in which case the Government in Edinburgh should be honest enough to say so and at least discuss the possibility of one day introducing tuition fees. It is possible to have a free, largely state-funded university system. It is also possible to nurture world-class, cutting-edge universities. It is not possible, with the current Government budget, to do both.