Bravehearts, high hopes

April 30, 1999

Scottish and Welsh higher and further education are staking claims with their new political masters. Olga Wojtas and Jennifer Currie survey the ground.

Scottish further and higher education institutions expect to come under greater political scrutiny with the advent of Scotland's first parliament for 300 years.

Aberdeen University principal C. Duncan Rice said: "It is not a danger to come under greater scrutiny unless you have something that you want to hide, or the scrutiny becomes so burdensome that it undermines your core business." He thinks that institutions have nothing to hide and can guard against excessive bureaucracy through dialogue with the parliament.

While the universities may have helped to scupper devolution in 1979, Scottish tertiary education now expects the new intimacy will bring opportunities.

The unions, which have been in the vanguard of support for political change, are plugging their own "manifestos". The Association of University Teachers Scotland's wish-list includes a pay review body and an end to fixed-term contracts. The Educational Institute of Scotland wants an immediate cash injection to eradicate deficit budgets in further education colleges and reform of college boards.

"We believe one of the major priorities for the Scottish parliament must be to have a coherent national plan for further education," said EIS president Moira McCrossan.

Tom Kelly, chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges, said: "We think we stand to gain substantially, because the Scottish parliament will have a great deal more time to devote to further education than was ever available under Westminster. We strongly support the more deliberative approach to policy-making that has been promised."

The ASC has deliberately avoided lobbying politicians during the "hurly-burly" of electioneering, Mr Kelly said, particularly because there seems to be a cross-party consensus on further education's importance to lifelong learning and employment. But it will certainly promote the sector to the Scottish executive, the parliament and its committees.

Bernard King, principal of the University of Abertay Dundee, said it is crucial for the parliament to recognise different institutional missions and the importance of a diverse system.

"The new parliament will be radically different and more inclusive than that with which we are familiar. I am sure it will recognise that Scotland needs universities that will release the creativity of all the nation's students and businesses. The new parliament must rediscover what a Scottish university is really all about."

Ian Graham-Bryce, convenor of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, said knowledge without good government is as useless as government without proper knowledge. Government that is closer to higher education institutions will have a better understanding of the diversity, the breadth and depth of curriculum, and the degree structure that makes Scotland's education system unique.

"Just as we are optimistic that the parliament will support higher education by halting the decline in public funding, so higher education will support the parliament," he said. "We provide ground-breaking independent thought, we deliver the skills and knowledge required by business, and we are an important engine for the economy: our income of Pounds 1. billion employs 36,000 people and represents 9 per cent of Scotland's service-sector exports."

Professor Rice has sent a pamphlet to all the candidates that urges the parliament to explore different higher education funding models, and ways of encouraging donations to institutions.

Academics have helped to draft the political blueprint. Alice Brown, professor of politics at Edinburgh University and member of the constitutional steering group on the parliament, said: "If you are designing something new, you can take advantage of international lessons. Academics have international contacts and can readily access that material."

Researchers expect to continue playing a key role in the parliament's work. Professor Brown and sociology professor David McCrone are co-directors of Edinburgh University's new Governance of Scotland Forum, which aims to inform the parliament about expertise across the university and to encourage staff to conduct policy-related research. It also hopes to promote collaboration with other institutions.

"There are some issues in academic life where clearly people might be in competition, but also areas where they collaborate, and the trick is to try to get the best research by having a bit of both," Professor Brown said.

Napier University has set up an international teledemocracy centre, offering research on the use of information technology to boost democratic participation. The parliament is expected to be IT-literate, and Napier's head of computing has been seconded as its director of communications.

Napier also aims to establish an employment research institute. Vice-principal Michael Thorne said education and employment policies may diverge from those south of the border and need to be underpinned by information on Scotland rather than on the United Kingdom as a whole.

"Good policy-making in government requires good research," agreed Sir William Fraser, former principal of Glasgow University and a former permanent secretary at the Scottish Office.

Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities are jointly promoting themselves as a research resource in areas ranging from community health to sustainable development. But Strathclyde's principal, Sir John Arbuthnott, warns against parochialism.

"While becoming excited by the parliament, if universities are going to succeed in research, they have to be world-class. We want to serve Scotland, but we are an integral part of the network of universities in the UK."

Professor Rice also sounded a note of caution. Universities must strive for continual improvement, he said. "We must ensure that in the flush of enthusiasm about the new Scotland, we do not become so complacent that we stop worrying about getting better."

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