If it ain't broke, don't fix it

September 5, 1997

Would devolution aid Scottish higher education? Was Dearing right about Scottish participation rates and medicine?

THE SCOTTISH university system is already significantly devolved. Since 1992 there has been a separate Scottish Higher Education Funding Congress that answers to the Scottish Secretary. Under the proposals for devolution there would be a degree of local parliamentary scrutiny of higher education, the context of which would be set by the new parliament.

The Scottish Trades Union Council has called for the principle of subsidiarity - that the new Parliament should undertake only those tasks which cannot be executed effectively at a local level - to operate in both the higher and further education context.

The most important issue will be the extent to which a new parliament will recognise the contribution that Scotland's universities make to its economy, both directly and indirectly, and that if the system ain't bust then meddling is a dangerous game. Much will depend on the quality of the MacMinster of Education.

The greatest potential advantage to the system is that education is held in higher esteem in Scotland than in England. Even though there was also a general election this year, the then Scottish Secretary gave an extra Pounds 15 million to higher education. That this was thought to be appropriate in Scotland but not England is significant.

Equally, the growth of the age participation rate to a level that is one-third higher than the rest of Britain indicates the support for education. Nonetheless, higher education will find that the pressure to redistribute resources to other sectors of education will be fuelled by a very strong schools lobby.

The stakes will be high and the universities and colleges will have their work cut out to learn the politics of a new and untested parliament that could have other preoccupations. The key question is whether the competitiveness of Scottish universities in the UK and internationally will be enhanced.

Fundamental to this for the University of Edinburgh is the manner and volume of research funding. We are reassured by the devolution white paper's clear statement that we shall remain under the UK research council system. This is absolutely fundamental.

We also look to a new parliament to recognise the importance for the Scottish universities and the Scottish economy of the "cross border" flow of students from other parts of the UK into Scotland. Neither "braveheartism" nor financial disincentives must be allowed to reduce this, as reducing this flow could lead to the decision to close one or more Scottish universities.

This brings us to the question of money. While the "Barnet" formula that sets the current Scottish vote continues to influence funding, then the problems will be no greater than at present. However, two further questions remain.

Not surprisingly, the Scottish committee of the Dearing inquiry did not resolve the issue of the introduction of tuition fees on the cost of Scottish honours degrees, which normally involve one further year of study. A Scottish Parliament could make special provision here.

Then there is the matter of the new parliament's proposed tax-raising powers. I have no doubt that, initially at least, as we recruit staff nationally and internationally, we shall have to reduce the disincentive of any extra taxes levied.

This means a pro-rata larger pay bill. However, long-sighted staff will see that this also means larger pensions that they can take with them in due course, should that be their wish. I am not sure that bright young lecturers will see that as a motivation, nor that research councils and the Wellcome Trust will view it as a legitimate charge on their resources.

When it comes to measuring quality, the Scottish universities and colleges want full membership of UK-wide processes, whether through the Quality Assessment Agency or the research assessment exercise. The battle to ensure the former predates a Scottish assembly. We would want reassurance that the latter will not be parochialised through divergence of either assessment processes or funding patterns within SHEFC.

In conclusion, however, it must be made plain that there is not and cannot be a university position on whether to go for "yes-yes", "no-no", or a one-all draw in Thursday's vote. Members of the university belong to or support all of the main political parties. What is certain is that whatever the will of the Scottish voters, the universities of Scotland will do everything to maximise in the new context the cultural advantage which education already has in Scotland.

Stewart Sutherland

Vice chancellor of Edinburgh University.

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