Goodwill built on willingness to listen and straight talk

The SNP Education Secretary has won admiration for her refreshing approach, writes Olga Wojtas

September 25, 2008

Sixteen often tumultuous months after Fiona Hyslop became the first Scottish National Party (SNP) Cabinet Secretary for Education, she has managed to maintain a healthy level of goodwill.

Arguably the worst public criticism has come from a style guru who suggested a makeover, accusing Ms Hyslop of a worrying penchant for Marks & Spencer jackets.

But this does not mean that joy is unconfined in Scotland's higher education sector. The universities were dismayed by the outcome of the latest spending review, and staff and students are angered at being excluded from the task force currently mapping the way ahead.

But Ms Hyslop's approach has been widely praised as "refreshing": she has spent an unprecedented amount of time with the key players, and her straight talking is matched by careful listening, it is argued. She made good on her pledge to make the universities the Scottish Cabinet's priority in any budget manoeuvres, securing another £20 million this year to help the universities meet their pay commitments. Universities Scotland conceded that this went "a very long way" towards easing the pressures.

The task force has been widely perceived as an olive branch in the wake of the funding settlement. Ms Hyslop insisted that it had already been mooted with principals, but concedes that their reaction to the spending review gave it added impetus. Membership was confined to the Government, the principals and the Scottish Funding Council to ensure a "short, sharp analysis", with changes implemented in 2009.

It heralds a new relationship between the Government and higher education, with the universities set to become a recognised sector in Scotland's economic strategy.

"That's a huge shift," Ms Hyslop said. "The universities are not just seen as recipients of government money but as contributors to economic wealth. People have given nods to that in the past, but this is a clear statement. With it comes responsibilities we have towards them and to have universities recognise that they need to align themselves with our overarching purpose for sustainable economic growth."

The Scottish Funding Council will be expected to have a much lighter touch, giving institutions greater autonomy and concentrating instead, for example, on improving the links between higher education and business.

Funding is expected to be divided between a flexible General Fund for mainstream work and a Horizon Fund backing initiatives that support the Government's priorities and individual institutions' strengths.

Sir Muir Russell, principal of the University of Glasgow and immediate past convener of Universities Scotland, said: "The task force has delivered more freedom and more influence for universities in Scotland.

"In return, we will continue to demonstrate ways in which universities transform Scotland for the better. The report hasn't solved the funding issues facing higher education in the coming years, but it has given us an unprecedented opportunity to make our case directly to the heart of Government."

Scotland has a very diverse higher education system, Ms Hyslop said, which ranges from small specialist institutions to research-intensive universities, and each has to play to its own strengths. But one thing is non-negotiable: all Scottish higher education institutions will carry out research. There will be no "teaching-only" universities north of the border.

"I'm delighted I have 100 per cent backing for that from all stakeholders," Ms Hyslop said. "The Scottish system, I believe, will be proved to be the successful combination for the next century."

The SNP Government is expected to hold a referendum on independence in 2010: if it wins, just how separate might the Scottish universities be? Does Ms Hyslop envisage their removal from the revamped research assessment exercise?

"It's important to recognise that universities are independent institutions. There's a whole variety of different issues where cooperation and discussion with UK authorities will continue. They happen now; they'll still happen post-independence. I think anybody who has a belief in a knowledge society, academic research and the opportunities it can provide will make sure that whatever system evolves is one that meets the needs of the institutions rather than the convenience of the Government."

The SNP rejects tuition fees - and even abolished the £2,200 graduate endowment that Scottish graduates paid, trumpeting the return to "free" education. But many academics fear the impact of this manoeuvre, when universities south of the border have the extra income from top-up fees, which could rise further after the 2009 review of the current £3,000 fee cap.

Ms Hyslop was sceptical of the future benefit of top-up fees to English universities - especially as the Government faces major costs in allowing students to defer the payment of fees until after graduation.

"In the current economic climate, the Treasury would face a major challenge in upfront costs if the cap on fees were lifted," she said. "The price for lifting the cap risks a reduced settlement from Government, which is not what universities down south want to see."

She said fears of an exodus of Scottish staff to England were allayed by the research-pooling initiative, bringing disciplines together across institutions to achieve critical mass. "The practical experience is that the magnet of successful research is proving very attractive to top scientists," she said.

Ms Hyslop, who graduated from the University of Glasgow in economic history and sociology, has three children in nursery, primary and secondary school - and she was confident there would be a thriving higher education system for them.

But what about those M&S jackets? "It's good enough for Mylene Klass..." quipped Ms Hyslop, referring to the store's high-profile model. "We all might want to look like her."

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