Olga Wojtas sounds out key players on plans to transform Scotland into a 'learning nation'.
Scottish higher education, according to enterprise and lifelong learning minister Wendy Alexander, is the jewel in the crown. She says it is up to the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning (ELL) committee to "create the space for the sector to shine".
The shape of that space will be the subject of fierce debate over the next six months. Key players in the sector are queuing up to make their case to the ELL committee's review of lifelong learning. And Ms Alexander has launched her own review of higher education whose findings will follow the committee's report next Easter.
David Bleiman, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "We welcome the review of higher education in Scotland. Although the ELL committee is inquiring into lifelong learning, that is a much broader inquiry and there are many aspects of higher education strategy which will inevitably have to be addressed in the ministerial review. If by that time, the committee has taken evidence and expressed views, so much the better. There will still be a lot of detail to be sorted."
The lifelong learning review will investigate how the worlds of work, education and training can promote lifelong learning jointly, and how to avoid overlap and confusion. Ms Alexander has flagged up three key priorities for the higher education sector: widening access and meeting the skills need; research opportunities; and modernising management. The reviews are not primarily financially driven, although the ELL committee is likely to comment on the adequacy of current funding.
Despite the Scottish Executive's budget commitments for student finance, schoolteachers' pay increases and free personal care of the elderly, higher education is confident of continued support. It argues that it is the driver for the Scottish economy and must be nurtured to enable the executive to pay the bills.
Despite initial fears, colleges and universities have not suffered from the axeing of tuition fees. It is never overtly stated, but the Scottish Executive has shifted back to the pre-1997 position of paying fees for the vast majority of students through the Student Awards Agency for Scotland.
The executive is proclaiming the sector's best deal for 20 years, with the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council's £600 million funding accounting for almost a third of the enterprise and lifelong learning department's budget.
That sits alongside a modest increase in projected student numbers. The Scottish Executive wants to see the bulk of future expansion taking place through further education colleges. But higher education institutions warn that the new real-terms increases have not made up for the previous cuts, and that even more cash is needed if Scotland is to achieve economic, social and cultural prosperity.
Mr Bleiman said: "I am not unduly pessimistic about future funding. Wendy Alexander has a strong personal commitment to higher education, which she clearly understands to be Scotland's route to sustainable prosperity in a world in which the knowledge base will be a society's strongest economic asset. You can't believe that, and set up a review of higher education, if your intention is to starve the sector of resources in the years ahead."
The Scottish Parliament can invoke its tax-raising powers if necessary, but David Caldwell, director of Universities Scotland, believes this will not be necessary. "I think they could achieve a great deal within their existing resources by reordering their priorities," he said. "To turn Scotland into a learning nation could give us a huge advantage, but it's terribly important that it's more than just a slogan and is given reality."
Universities Scotland has sent a bullish, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" message to the ELL committee. It claims Scotland is the world leader in lifelong learning, more effective and efficient than its competitors, with a 49 per cent participation rate. Despite this, its dropout rate is no higher than the rest of the UK. And it has not sacrificed quality, with a quarter of courses rated excellent in the past five years, 57 per cent highly satisfactory, 19 per cent satisfactory, and none unsatisfactory.
But there are fears in higher education that the ELL committee review could propose diverting funding to further education, particularly in the bid to boost social inclusion. Universities Scotland says there must be no dividing line between different parts of the education system in achieving wider access. "Segregation prolongs exclusion. Higher education must be a priority in the social inclusion targets of a lifelong learning strategy," it said.
It also warns that the main barrier to lifelong learning is demand, not supply. All Scottish companies must be encouraged to see lifelong learning as an important part of their work. Higher education institutions have tried to encourage personal learning, often trying to make it free or as cheap as possible. But as funding has been squeezed these "goodwill" strategies have often had to be the first to go.
Ms Alexander warns against an "either/or mentality" between further and higher education. There needs to be clear focus on mission, with higher education involved in research, and further education seeking to help the "forgotten million" with no advanced education, she says.
But there is increasing interest in blurring the divide between the two sectors for the benefit of students. The ELL committee is clearly intrigued by the UHI Millennium Institute, the Highlands and Islands' high-tech federation of further education colleges and research institutes that has now won designation as a higher education institution.
The National Union of Students Scotland wants to see a single further and higher education funding council for a unified tertiary sector, to ensure equitable support for further education.
The two councils say there is a case for merger in the medium to long term. But since the Scottish Further Education Funding Council is only two years old and has a major work programme planned, they say merger in the near future would be premature.
But in the ministerial review, a row is brewing over a potential planning remit for the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council. A review of Shefc is long overdue: it was supposed to be reviewed five years after its launch in 1992. But this was postponed because of moves to establish SFEFC in the late 1990s, with the two councils sharing a chief executive and key senior managers.
NUS Scotland and AUT Scotland would like to see Shefc's powers extended. Ms Alexander said Shefc was planning by default through its allocations, and it was "lunatic" that it had no mandate even to discuss the system's outputs. Mr Bleiman agrees that determining funding methodologies and allocating funds through particular streams is tantamount to planning.
"Although Shefc itself has to demonstrate consultation and competence in everything it does, there remains the need for someone to determine how much public money universities are entitled to receive and what they have to do to earn this money," he said.
"A more explicit planning role, rather than pretending that it is all about perfecting some technical funding formula, might be more transparent and allow all stakeholders to have their say before decisions are taken."
The universities have successfully called for a reduction in the amount of top slicing, says Mr Bleiman, and have no argument against conditions of grant, to ensure that public policy objectives are achieved in exchange for public money.
But Universities Scotland is highly dubious about any planning role for Shefc. And its mistrust has deepened by Shefc's proposals to reform teaching and research funding. These have been widely condemned by the sector as "potentially destabilising".
"One has to be very sceptical about central planning," Mr Caldwell said. The attempts of the University Grants Committee to plan in the 1980s are generally seen as a disaster, he says. "Let's see Shefc display greater competence at the responsibility it currently has."
But both institutions and unions will undoubtedly flag up the importance of the Bett report's findings. Problems of retaining and recruiting staff are set to worsen in Scotland, as many staff reach retirement age, and new graduates see that schoolteachers get a 23 per cent pay increase over three years.
"I don't begrudge schoolteachers a penny of what they're getting, but it's created some bizarre relativities," Mr Caldwell said. "It's not that institutions are unwilling, but they do not have the resources to reward academics better."
Despite the financial constraints, he sees no move towards top-up fees. "The climate of opinion in Scotland is, I think, even less sympathetic than in other parts of the country."
Joan Stringer, principal of Queen Margaret University College, vice-convener of Universities Scotland, and former Scottish commissioner for the Equal Opportunities Commission, says staff are the sector's most valued and valuable resources, and it is crucial for institutions and funding councils to take action to support them.
Mr Bleiman said: "The central theme for AUT Scotland is the importance of good people management in universities as a matter of strategic importance, not merely an operational afterthought."