Scotland has still to tackle proper funding for higher education, argues David Caldwell
Scotland votes on Thursday to elect a new parliament. The first four years of devolution have produced some surprises, not least that student funding was a dominant issue in the 1999 election campaign. Indeed, this was the first policy area in which the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Executive departed significantly from UK practice.
By abolishing upfront tuition fees for full-time undergraduates and reintroducing maintenance grants for students from poor families, the executive used its powers to support its declared aim to widen participation in higher education.
Tuition fees were not popular, but their abolition has had at least one negative consequence - higher education institutions were deprived of a source of income.
It is true that ministers kept their promise to make good the lost money.
However, the effect has been to increase the dependence of Scottish universities on public funding. This is potentially a serious problem both for a political administration facing competing calls on limited resources and for a sector that would feel more secure if it were financially more independent.
The dangers are even clearer following the publication of the white paper on higher education, which has gone boldly into territory that the executive has sought to avoid.
There is much to disagree with in the white paper, but two major things can be said in its favour. The first is that it recognises that very large increases in funding are needed to enable universities to contribute effectively to the life of the nation. The second is that it proposes a way in which substantial additional resources can be found to meet the funding need. We may not agree with what has been proposed, and indeed the scale of graduate debt that the white paper implies would be widely opposed in Scotland. But England is at least two steps ahead in realising that there is a problem and that something has to be done about it - and urgently.
In Scotland, by contrast, ministers take too much comfort from the consensus against "top-up" fees and are too ready to believe that there is no great urgency. They are right that there is strong antipathy towards top-up fees in Scotland and that there is no enthusiasm at all for the return of tuition fees. However, they are wrong to interpret this as indicating that universities are content with the status quo.
Ministers are also inclined to think that, with higher education being among the devolved functions, it is necessary to give only limited attention to what is happening in other parts of the UK. This dangerously underestimates the extent to which UK higher education forms a coherent whole, within which staff move freely and frequently among the different jurisdictions.
For higher education, as for other sectors, the devolution balance sheet is mixed. There are probably a few more pluses than minuses, but it is a close-run thing.
The closer relationship with ministers, senior civil servants and members of the Scottish Parliament has been a gain. So, too, was the solution to the riddle of student support. The executive also deserves credit for the innovative pairing of tertiary education with economic development in its ministerial and departmental structures. That was a creative example of making connections.
The main minus has been that other connections have not been made. This has been most clearly demonstrated by the way in which student funding was dealt with as if it were entirely detached from the funding of institutions. The first Scottish Executive tackled one important part of the job. It has also left much work for its successor.
David Caldwell is director of Universities Scotland.