'Blundering' reforms will blight Scots universities

November 28, 2003

One of the UK's leading authorities on devolution has condemned ministers for leaving Scotland's universities facing an uncertain future in the wake of their "blundering" English higher education reforms.

The attack by Charlie Jeffery, director of a multimillion-pound devolution research programme, has fuelled a mounting campaign to persuade Scottish MPs to vote against the government's higher education plans in the London Parliament. The bill could stand or fall on the votes of the 54 Scottish Labour MPs in London.

There are fears that the extra funding for English universities, which is expected to come from top-up fees, will lead to an exodus of top Scottish researchers, while an influx of English students anxious to avoid higher fees could squeeze out Scottish applicants.

The Scottish Parliament's enterprise and culture committee is holding an urgent investigation into how to counter any threat.

Mr Jeffery, director of the Economic and Social Research Council's devolution programme, which funds 35 projects across the UK, accused Westminster and Whitehall of sloth and complacency in thinking through what devolution means.

He said: "(The white paper) is a great blundering clumsy document in the English context but with this tremendous knock-on effect on Scotland that nobody thought of.

"We have in some ways a common university system and common research culture. There's a real UK-wide implication for an essentially English policy that the centre didn't think through and that causes all sorts of problems for the Scottish government."

Lewis Macdonald, Scotland's deputy lifelong learning minister, admitted to the enterprise and culture committee that UK ministers did not discuss the white paper with their Scottish counterparts before issuing it.

He diplomatically sidestepped complaints that this was a flaw in the policy-making process, saying the white paper was not "a signed, sealed and delivered deal". But he conceded there was growing dialogue that aimed to ensure that UK ministers' decisions took full account of the Scottish situation.

Members of the Association of University Teachers Scotland were urging their constituency MPs to vote against top-up fees because of the downward spiral they would create in Scotland. It could take 83 Labour MPs to rebel to scupper the higher education bill.

Of the 72 Scottish MPs in the London Parliament, all 18 of the non-Labour members are expected to vote against the bill. But it is unclear how many of the 54 Labour members will support the top-up fees plans. Only six of them have signed an early-day motion opposing fees.

David Bleiman, the AUT's Scottish official, said: "Scottish MPs do need to consider where the interests of their own constituents lie on this issue.

If they have universities, or indeed university staff and students, to represent, then any English university funding proposal that places an even greater financial burden on the students is unacceptable. Scottish students will be priced out of the more prestigious English universities, restricting freedom of choice.

"There is a direct financial impact so it does become our business," he added.

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