Academics hope devolution will not end in disillusion

July 10, 1998

The government has sanctioned one anomaly in its refusal to fund a fourth year at Scottish universities for non-Scottish students. But, asks Olga Wojtas, how different is higher education north of the border?

The Scottish Parliament, to be set up next year, starts with a blank sheet of paper rather than a Westminster blueprint. And higher education hopes to capitalise on a potentially more consultative and participative approach to politics.

At present, there is a Scottish Office minister for education and industry. The Association of University Teachers Scotland says this has led to higher education being marginalised, and wants to see one minister with sole responsibility for education. It is also pressing for a powerful new education committee, combining powers of legislation and investigation that are separated at Westminster, with a subcommittee responsible for tertiary education and research.

The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council must continue as a buffer body between parliament and institutions, the AUTS says, but the sub-committee would monitor SHEFC and the proposed further education funding council. The AUTS says this "greater democratic accountability" would enhance SHEFC's "welcome transparency and consultative approach".

It wants a new Scottish research council to coordinate work that is currently the responsibility of various Scottish Office departments, with researchers across the United Kingdom able to tender for projects.

A number of academics are serving on key all-party advisory groups that are mapping the way ahead. But there has been a relatively muted reaction to devolution from institutions. Perhaps they feel it is inappropriate to pronounce on political change, more probably they are suspicious of change in general.

But there are notable exceptions. Aberdeen University, for example, is encouraging staff to stand for election, reassuring them that their jobs will be held open for them. And Edinburgh University has set up a Governance of Scotland Forum as a single point of entry to the expertise it and other higher education institutions can offer the Scottish Parliament, encouraging academics to undertake policy-related research.

Anthony Cohen, Edinburgh's provost of law and social sciences, says: "I hope we are going to have a Parliament which will not be afraid to have its prejudices complicated by information."

Nocaptiont Waiting for a new congregation: the Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland, part of Edinburgh University's New College, will temporarily house the Scottish Parliament until late 2001

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