Different, yes, but better?

September 4, 2014

Ferdinand von Prondzynski claims that “Divergence has delivered results” for Scotland (From Where I Sit, 14 August). Really?

The enduring myth for many Scots is that we are better than England in education.

I note that in discussing Scotland, von Prondzynski avoids using “better” but says “ambitious and innovative”, and says that it incorporates the ideal of a “ ‘democratic intellect’ in which all of its society has a stake ”.

So England is not those good things? England, with its better participation of poorer people (according to research by Sheila Riddell of the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity)?

The whole of the UK does poorly in an international comparison of secondary education, according to the results of the Pisa study released late last year.

In many league tables, Scotland does well only because it has three universities that are truly world-class. Of those, the University of Edinburgh and the University of St Andrews are dependent upon fees from the rest of the UK, with the University of Glasgow less so.

Given the historical advantage enjoyed by ancients (Scotland had four universities when England had two), the question to be asked is where is Scotland’s equivalent of the University of Warwick, or York or Bristol? Why has the different democratic intellect not produced a new world-class university?

None of this is to say that England is perfect or that Scotland is worse; rather, we all face the same challenges, and we all need to improve.

The self-satisfied hooray for Scotland nonsense blinds us to the real problems.

Jim_Sta
Via timeshighereducation.co.uk

 

Hugh Pennington (“Scottish freedom”, Letters, 28 August) claims that the von Prondzynski report on reforming Scottish higher education governance is irrelevant to discussion of the independence referendum because it is not mentioned in the Scottish National Party White Paper and because the universities are already within the remit of Holyrood; and that the “historic distinctiveness” of Scottish higher education relates solely to the way the relationship between universities and the state has evolved, with the English tradition providing more protection for academic freedom. This will surprise many in English universities today.

Pennington’s cherry-picking of history aside, it may be noted that von Prondzynski’s own account of his report (“Divergence has delivered results”, 14 August) stresses the need to improve protections for academic freedom as one of its central principles.

This is highly relevant to an independence debate that is crucially much more about social vision – including the role of universities in the good society – than it is about national identity.

The revival of discussions about Scotland’s higher education distinctiveness has come about primarily because of the Holyrood government’s “no tuition fees” policy, which is informed by the perception that, north of the border, there is a culture of “democratic intellectualism”.

Debate should centre on whether or not – given the different possible outcomes of the 18 September vote – Scottish distinctiveness can be sustained in the face of the increasingly divergent trajectory of Westminster’s policies privatising higher education and the “Barnett consequentials”, rather than on the 1858 Universities (Scotland) Act, which seems to have a special place in Pennington’s chamber of historical horrors.

He appears, however, to agree that there is a “democratic deficit” in Scotland’s universities. And it would certainly be helpful if the Scottish government were to adopt the current education minister’s public support for the von Prondzynski report’s proposals as collective policy.

Terry Brotherstone
Former president, University and College Union Scotland, and member of the von Prondzynski review panel

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