Freedom for those who hit Scottish goals

Government offers to cut red tape for institutions that deliver on national targets. Tariq Tahir reports.

February 7, 2008

Scotland's universities are being promised less red tape in return for achieving key government goals as part of a review of higher education under way north of the border.

The so-called concordat between Government and universities would see lighter regulation, while universities would be expected to deliver improvements on student access, research quality, teaching, estates and, potentially, the contribution the sector makes to the economy.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Fiona Hyslop, the Scottish Education and Lifelong Learning Secretary, said that the concordat is one agreement that could emerge from the task force set up to look at the future of Scottish higher education.

Topics to be examined by the task force between now and June include the role universities will play in improving Scotland's economic competitiveness, future demand for higher education, and how teaching and research will change in the future.

"I'm not saying that this is what we'll end up with, but it's a concept worth putting on the table," said Ms Hyslop.

She explained that there is currently a concordat between the local government umbrella body COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) and the Scottish Government.

"That has completely changed the way local government operates, so basically we've ended ring-fencing, freed up decision-making for them and in return we've asked for specific outcomes and indications that they're doing that.

"My thinking is that you can have a socially responsible university sector that is supporting students, including free education, but you could perhaps be economically liberal in relieving some of the funding constraints and the rules and regulations surrounding that.

"The freeing-up of the rules and regulations is not so much a driver for efficiency, though that might be a byproduct, it's about freedom to make decisions and adapt and change and innovate the courses they do and the work they are involved in - to do what they would like to do but perhaps feel constrained from doing if the funding council rules are very tightly drawn.

"The task force might decide we need a set of rules anyway, and it's (a question of) the degree to which you have them. But we've got to be prepared to engage in that debate."

Universities Scotland has given a cautious welcome to the idea of a concordat, with individual principals contacted by Times Higher Education backing the idea at this stage. However, all agreed that more detail would be needed for further consideration to be made.

Duncan Rice, principal of the University of Aberdeen, said: "On the concordat, of course none of us knows precisely what it means at this stage, but the general idea that things get streamlined by having a series of commitments that we all take on and try to work within could be extremely exciting. My impression is that it is a very good concept.

"We have a fairly heavy bureaucratic overhead and anything that you can do reduce that is helpful. (Paperwork) is not going to cripple an institution but it takes a good deal of time and attention," he said.

"I'm not for a moment suggesting that we live in a centrally controlled Stalinist system. You clearly have to have accountability for public money, but the lighter touch the better," said Professor Rice.

Bernard King, principal of the University of Abertay Dundee, said: "I do believe in some type of covenant between universities and Government, and it would be nice to establish that for Scotland.

"Something that goes beyond three or four-year spending rounds and establishes a relationship between Scottish universities and the state would be helpful to both. We could then be very ambitious," said Professor King.

tariq.tahir@tsleducation.com.

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