Building on the past, looking to the future

December 21, 2007

Fiona Hyslop, Scottish Education Secretary, on long-term aims for a higher education task force.

Our Scottish universities have a long and proud tradition, with four of Britain's oldest universities sited north of the border. Indeed, in the 16th century, England had two universities - the same number as Aberdeen.

Times have changed, our higher education system has grown, but universities' crucial role remains unchanged.

The challenge now is to ensure that our universities are well placed for a successful future, where they continue to compete with those in England and further afield.

If we want to stay at the cutting edge of invention and innovation, then our universities must be the breeding ground for this research and development. Just think what Scotland has given the world - everything from telephones and television to Dolly the sheep. We must ensure we know where the next John Logie Baird or Ian Wilmut will come from.

As we work to build a prosperous and sustainable economic future for our nation, I believe the time is right to consider what Scotland needs from its universities between now and 2028.

That's the role of our Joint Future Thinking Task Force. I want this to be a short, sharp exercise that delivers results - not a talking shop or an independent inquiry that takes two years to reach a conclusion.

The task force will consider what demands will be placed on our students, graduates and universities in the future, as well as the barriers that currently prevent universities from fulfilling their full potential.

We will also consider what role universities can play in ensuring Scotland's economic competitiveness, a point well made in the Government's Economic Strategy launched last month.

I believe it is vital that we consider some big issues - the nature of teaching and research in the future, for example - and where further collaboration could take place and in what form.

Much has been said recently - and much political capital made - about the funding of universities in Scotland. Yet we start from a position where there is, in fact, broad financial parity between the sectors in Scotland and England. In no way are Scottish universities the poor relations of their English counterparts. Despite the reaction to last month's budget announcement there is acceptance, even from universities themselves, that we remain competitive with England in the short term.

The challenge comes in 2009-10, when work to review the cap on tuition fees in England begins. Many expect this to bring a cash bonanza for English universities, but it is by no means certain that England will see a free market free-for-all with individual universities setting their own fees. There is, after all, a substantial cost involved to the Westminster Treasury of pump-priming any new tuition fee regime and associated student support package. We can expect the Treasury to keep a firm grip on the purse strings. There simply cannot and will not be a bottomless pit.

Just as the vast bulk of Scottish students used loans to finance their graduate endowment fee, the same is true of top-up fees south of the border. It is an inefficient and expensive funding method and that is why we are moving away from this in Scotland. We have already introduced our Bill to abolish the graduate endowment fee and, with Parliament's approval, no more students will be liable for this charge. While we have no influence over what will happen south of the border, we do have our own destiny in our own hands.

That is why we need to plan strategically to support and position Scotland's universities for the long term in a global context. We must ensure they are well placed to compete not just against English universities but the best in the world.

We want Scottish students to get the best possible education, one that challenges them, motivates them, inspires them and leaves them ready to play their part in a modern Scotland. We also want our universities to attract the brightest and best talent from outwith Scotland to come here to work and study, enriching our lives, economy and culture.

The task force, which will conclude its work by next summer, will ensure that our universities are ready for this role and can deliver the excellence our country needs for a successful future. Working together we'll challenge each other to find solutions and prepare for what tomorrow may bring. Our universities, our students and our country deserve nothing less.

Fiona Hyslop is Scotland's Education Secretary.

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