Innovation fatigue

December 29, 1995

SCOTLAND. Higher education in Scotland went through a curiously ambivalent year, taking a high-profile lead on a variety of initiatives, which circumstances conspired to undermine.

The Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals belatedly pronounced on Higher Still, the imaginative Scottish Office move to merge academic and vocational post-16 courses into a single modular system. COSHEP welcomed the proposal, while warning that it must not be a Trojan Horse subverting the four-year degree system by promoting direct entry to second year.

But there is little sign that higher education is preparing to dovetail with these innovative courses rather than with the traditional academic Highers. The Scottish Office has decided to postpone implementation until 1998, tacitly acknowledging that schools are suffering from innovation fatigue.

Scotland is now leading Europe with Metropolitan Area Networks, high-speed broad-band networks allowing interractive multimedia links among higher education institutions in four regions. The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has announced yet more funding to bring all 21 institutions into a single network. But the institutions have so far shown little enthusiasm for potentially complementary technology, Scottish Television's offer of their own television channel.

And SHEFC's recurrent funding was not so bountiful as its support for new technology. Funded student numbers rose by 2 per cent, exceeding 100,000 for the first time, against a funding increase of only 1 per cent, and the threat that safety netting will be removed in 1996. Recent fears of the impact of the Budget were starkly predicted by COSHEP last June, when it warned that if cuts continued, some institutions might not survive.

But it challenged any assumption that higher education was a drain on the public purse by commissioning a report on the sector's economic impact, which revealed that it created more than 68,000 Scottish jobs, and generated Pounds 1.3 billion for Scottish households.

But the institutions' view of their worth in terms of teaching quality was queried by SHEFC, which warned of a continuing mismatch between self-assessments and its own less flattering reports. One hopes it was not mere pique which led COSHEP to call for an end to SHEFC's quality assessment system in favour of a single quality asssurance body for the United Kingdom.

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