Governance and finances top the agenda in devolved administrations

Post-election focus will be on management and funding gap with England. Hannah Fearn reports

May 19, 2011

University leaders in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have spoken of the urgency of tackling the funding of higher education in the countries following the recent elections.

Scottish universities expect to face a root-and-branch review of higher education governance after the Scottish National Party's resounding win earlier this month, when the party won 69 seats in Holyrood and formed a majority government for the first time.

In the run-up to the ballot, the SNP's higher education policy focused heavily on governance. In a Green Paper on the sector published last December, Mike Russell, the SNP education secretary, said "hard questions" had to be asked about the way universities were managed and overseen. Senior academics told Times Higher Education that vice-chancellors now feared a major shake-up of governance arrangements in Scotland.

However, the University and College Union welcomed the SNP's scrutiny of management structures.

"We have worked well with the SNP and Mike Russell in particular, who has listened to our concerns over governance," said Mary Senior, Scottish official for UCU Scotland.

"We believe that the SNP has formulated the right policies for universities in ruling out fees and reviewing the management of our institutions...(and) we look forward to working with the new Scottish government as it takes forward its commitments to fully fund higher education in Scotland, and to enhance governance and collegiality."

The issue of funding has also been raised by students, who have called for action to deal with what many fear will become a cavernous funding gap between English and Scottish universities when the tuition fee cap south of the border trebles to £9,000 a year in 2012.

The SNP government has pledged to not introduce fees for Scottish students.

Chris Browne, acting president of the Dundee University Students Association, said the government had to demonstrate that it had workable plans to fill the funding gap. "The quality of higher education is already being eroded across Scotland, and politicians must act now."

In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, the two largest parties re-elected to the Assembly earlier this month were Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, both of which have promised to not increase tuition fees.

Renee Prendergast, president of the Queen's University Belfast UCU branch, warned that Northern Ireland's two universities would suffer if the new administration did not seek to plug the "black hole" in university finances. Last year £68 million was cut from the higher education budget. "It's going to be a difficult time and this is a very serious issue for us all. We have got to resource higher education," she said.

In Wales, the re-election of the Labour administration means that universities will have to continue working with Leighton Andrews, the current education minister, who has divided the sector with inflammatory remarks about cronyism and lack of ambition.

Amanda Wilkinson, director of Higher Education Wales, said universities were "keen to establish new ways of working with the Assembly Government".

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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