Olga Wojtas reports from a conference exploring the pitfalls and opportunities for HE in a devolved Scotland
Higher education will have a distinctive role in a renewed Scottish democracy but it should not become parochial, a conference on higher education and a Scottish parliament heard this week.
Sir John Shaw, chairman of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, speaking at the Inverness conference organised by the Association of University Teachers Scotland and the Scottish Trades Union Congress and sponsored by The THES, said Scottish higher education was part of both an international academic network and the Scottish tertiary education system.
"The Scottish parliament will serve the sector ill if it concentrates on the latter and ignores the former," he said. The quality of the sector depended on attracting academics of international calibre.
Peter Mackay, former head of the Scottish Office Industry Department, also emphasised continuing links with the rest of the United Kingdom. The demands of the labour market and cross-border student flows would inhibit divergence in course content and student support, he said. And while competition for a share of the Scottish block grant from the Treasury would become much more transparent, there would be continual emphasis on value for money, and continued influence from south of the border.
"If England decided to cut back on educational expenditure, the immediate effect would be a share of that reduction translated by formula into the Scottish block. If the English decided health was top of their priorities, the political pressures in Scotland to match that would be enormous."
But Scottish education minister Brian Wilson predicted a political debate on how the higher education system and students should be funded. Nobody should be surprised or even unhappy that this week's announcement of more funds for English universities has not seen a parallel Scottish announcement. "We have our own distinctive issues to face. We are not obliged to make decisions at exactly the same time as other parts of the UK and I think that is a strength."
In the face of strong scepticism Mr Wilson insisted that the government proposals for student support would not hamper access. Forty per cent of Scottish students would pay no tuition fees with only 20 per cent paying Pounds 1,000, he said. But he pledged to monitor the results of the changes.
Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at Moray House Institute of Education, predicted a growth in research. The Scottish Constitutional Convention had recommended specialist committees able to initiate legislation based on their own independent research. But Professor Paterson warned that higher education would find itself under much closer scrutiny by the parliament.
Angela Rogers, AUTS vice president, said it was vital to have a higher education funding body that also had a planning role to combat the danger of direct political control jeopardising academic freedom. Its advice to parliament should be public.
But Professor Shaw disagreed: "I think the funding council as presently constituted would be nervous of too much publicity attendant on its expert advice."
Peter Breeze, honorary secretary for AUTS, condemned the Dearing report for having produced "very few, pretty unimaginative" options for higher education funding, and called on Scotland to consider other alternatives.