Following recent letters in Times Higher Education, and in response to Ferdinand von Prondzynski (“Divergence has delivered results”, Countdown to the Scottish Referendum, 14 August), there are points to be made in respect of both the performance of Scottish universities and the pernicious impact of the nature of university funding on wider educational performance across Scotland.
Scottish National Party dogma over student fees has created in effect a “no-go area” of discussion regarding actual educational performance across the spectrum. Challenges to the performance myth of Scottish universities need to stress that the SNP administration has had devolved responsibility for their welfare. Calls for a “democratic deficit” to be corrected by the education minister appear ill-informed or naive, given the centralising behaviour of this administration, evidenced in its roll-out of outcome agreements for universities and colleges, and including the arbitrary reorganisation of the latter (delivering 40 per cent of higher education in Scotland), a triumph of form over function.
The Scottish government has been determined to attach shackles to funding. How could this ever be seen as a democratic option by von Prondzynski and his backing group? It fits with SNP intransigence over student fees. Ironically, Alex Salmond has stopped short of acknowledging that Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prizewinning economist he not only quotes but also “employs”, nails his colours to the mast of income-contingent fee loans as being the fairest and most efficient form of higher education funding.
Devolution has demonstrated how a separate Scottish government performs. In education, its record does not inspire confidence. Education has been an area of regression in terms of international comparison. Those who praise the performance of the premier universities overlook how, more widely, graduates and college leavers swamp the low-value employment sectors. No mention is made of how Scotland’s school system has regressed in recent years, according to verifiable comparative data from bodies such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Scotland’s secondary schools are performing at pre-devolution levels. Systemic failure abounds: we have a persistently poor record of securing better access to higher education for more disadvantaged communities. And this is an area in which central government has committed funding for cross-Scotland initiatives and programmes.
The dogma of “no tuition fees” for higher education flies in the face of the reasoned and practised arguments for income-related fee loans and has diverted resources away from the needs of school and colleges. Critically, it has also under-funded access to higher education by comparison with progressive, institution-based platforms of fees and subsidies. It is hardly a constructive approach to building a knowledge-based economy.
Scotland is a country in which prosperity and poverty co-exist. We have a few world-class universities alongside a deteriorating school system and a supposed college-based skills structure that, in fact, attempts to provide remediation for schools’ failings and has an unhealthy focus on low-value employment sectors. Although a small country, Scotland is neither coherent nor cohesive. Nor is its education system progressive or performing at an appropriate level.
In the debate on Scottish independence, the success of the university sector in Scotland is widely cited. There is indeed much to admire, but as a recent letter has suggested (“Different, yes, but better?”, Letters, 4 September), things are not as clear-cut as projected. This includes the accepted view that Scottish universities are “punching above their weight” in terms of research – 13 per cent of research funding while accounting for only 8.5 per cent of the UK population, with a correspondingly higher percentage of publications and citations. The figures are quoted by both the “Yes” and “No” advocates in support of their position. But the extent to which the research success of Scottish universities, relative to the rest of the UK, reflects the scale of the university sector in Scotland is rarely considered.
Scotland has 15 universities, while there are approximately 130 in the UK as a whole. Thus the percentage of research funding that goes to Scottish institutions is close to the proportion that its universities represent in the UK as a whole. Considerable research income, as well as volume of publications, is associated with medical schools and the biomedical sciences, substantial funding for these areas coming from the Medical Research Council and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, as well as the Wellcome Trust and other medically related charities. Scotland has five medical schools (including the pre-clinical school at St Andrews) in a population of 5.3 million, while England has 25 and Wales two for populations of 53 million and 3.1 million respectively. On a pro rata basis with Scotland, England would have 50 medical schools and Wales three.
Institutional size matters, of course, but the more institutions there are – and the more medical schools – the greater the likelihood of securing a higher proportion of the available research funds (and of producing research publications). Scotland may be performing much closer to what would be expected from the scale of its university provision, and particularly in medically related areas, than appears at first sight.
Dean of research strategy
University of Buckingham