Divergence is a dead end

October 16, 2014

The call by Ferdinand von Prondzynski for sustained divergence of higher education in Scotland misreads history and misinforms regarding the best route to future development (“Staying together but accommodating divergence”, News, 2 October).

The current disposition of the Scottish National Party leadership to see referendum defeat as a clear signal to ask for enhanced devolution seems to be reflected in a call for a form of “divergence max”. Here there has to be a challenge to any proxy assumption, issued on the part of the Scottish academy, that its universities support rather than challenge a nationalist position, which places itself on the road from Bannockburn rather than Bologna.

Referendum debate in Scotland avoided presentation of competing prospectuses for change. Before the referendum, the status quo was a casual consensus that we were doing well, better than most even: and von Prondzynski’s piece illustrates a neo-nationalist mindset assuming that the pace and direction of travel can be re-engaged, an immediate resumption of divergence max.

The funding model is not competitive. If the review chaired by von Prondzynski is implemented (Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland, 2012), it will disfigure governance. The relationship between the government and universities is not healthy. The Scottish government, and its leaders, prefer control: paying for it through block grant.

We have already an imbalance among even a small number of universities; college-driven higher education of questionable value; underachievement on the inclusion agenda; and value regression in graduate employment.

Future divergence, even in the short term, will result in underperformance, as the government will not be able to fund at internationally competitive levels. The immediate prospect is underfunded teaching and learning and a siege research mentality.

Gerrymandering of governance and management of universities will not provide an acceptable sense of direction. It is tedious to read the persistent, inaccurate tartan narrative of the iniquities of the Westminster bilateral, the evils of the Barnett formula. Let’s get real. Education is devolved and the Scottish government has chosen a cumbersome block grant methodology, policed by outcomes agreements.

Match funding with universities in England will be tested acutely when the tuition fee cap is removed after 2015. Research performance by Scottish universities has been enhanced by pooling arrangements. Suggestions for a Scottish research council threaten to place parochial bureaucracy in the way of the established academic networking protocol that gives Scottish institutions critical mass, presence and reputation.

Divergence is dysfunctional and incoherent. We need a full debate on the funding required; how it is raised, including an income-contingent fee/graduate tax system; and an honest set of statements regarding collateral resource reduction to other areas of the public sector if block granting is preferred.

Bill Wardle
Jordanhill, Glasgow

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