It's good to talk: strategy for a world-leading sector

The Scottish Funding Council's new chief stresses dialogue and partnership. Olga Wojtas reports

November 27, 2008

Mark Batho's new role as chief executive of the Scottish Funding Council is only his second job since he graduated in Classics from the University of St Andrews in 1979.

At the age of 22, Mr Batho became a career civil servant with the Scottish Office, involving innumerable changes of department.

"I have an inglorious history. As I moved through, I did bus deregulation in 1986, I saw in and saw out the poll tax in one posting, I headed up the team that did local government reorganisation," he said. The job he enjoyed most was director of lifelong learning, which he took up in 2003.

He had assumed that he would remain a civil servant, but his interest in tertiary education spurred him to apply for the SFC post following the early retirement of the previous chief executive, Roger McClure.

There were rumours of tensions between Mr McClure and John McClelland, the SFC chairman. Mr Batho said that part of his role is to ensure that the partnership between the council and executive is productive rather than confrontational.

"I don't think there's any reason why it should be confrontational," he added.

From the government side of the fence, Mr Batho was closely involved in the higher education task force that reported to Holyrood last week. Its emphasis on a "lighter-touch" SFC is seen by some as a slapped wrist for the council, warning it to back off from attempts to micromanage institutions.

"I completely don't see that," Mr Batho said. "I think the conclusion is that over the years we have done certain things that have had value but maybe their time is past. Do we really need to collect that statistical return, do we really need to send out that number of circulars?

"It's not a case of suddenly saying to universities, 'We are completely off your case now', because statutorily we're not allowed to do that. But it's saying to them, 'You are mature, well-governed organisations - get on and deliver what you ought to be delivering.'"

When he worked on the legislation setting up the SFC in 2005, through the merger of the further and higher education funding councils, the civil servants' mantra was that the Government did policy, the SFC did strategy and the institutions did delivery.

He prefers to describe the SFC as a "strategic body" rather than a "buffer body" between Government and institutions.

"I find that actually quite insulting because it has the connotation of being an old buffer in a tweed jacket, and it suggests you've got two warring factions."

He does believe, however, that communication between higher education and Government has not been as smooth as it could have been. Universities were dismayed by the outcome of the last spending review, but Mr Batho said it reflected the Scottish National Party's manifesto, which barely mentioned higher education.

"The universities will claim that they put forward a case but that doesn't always seem to be absorbed by Government at the level that universities would hope. There may have been a problem with the articulation or the listening - I don't know - but I think it's the funding council's role to make sure that dialogue doesn't lose anything."

There is continuing anxiety that Scotland faces lower funding levels in the wake of the introduction of top-up fees south of the border, and that it is already the victim of creeping attrition.

The SFC is now working to establish comparisons across the UK, and last week the Scottish Government pledged to match English funding levels.

"There are all sorts of claims and counterclaims about how good or bad the situation is, and different institutions have different views. We've got to get closer to an understanding of whether there is a differential, and if so, what it is," Mr Batho said.

"It's really difficult to get an absolute handle on it, not least because the resources in England have to be dished out in bursaries, different institutions have different bursary systems, and they come from different starting positions. We're watching the discussions in England (on a possible increase in the £3,000 annual tuition fee) with interest, but not with an immediate expectation of a leap in fee levels."

He considers it crucial for the SFC to maintain good relations with its counterparts in the rest of the UK.

"The Higher Education Funding Council for England is a powerhouse of thinking, and we shouldn't cut ourselves off from that - albeit that we absolutely see the world through different spectacles and do things our own way where it's appropriate."

One difference is the resolution that all Scottish universities must carry out research.

"I think it's fundamental to a Scottish perception of what a university is. It's the old Humboldtian model, and I don't think there has been any sense from anywhere in Scotland that there ought to be a departure from that," he said.

"You ought to have people who are teaching who understand the disciplines of research, the skills that research imparts, and those ought to be part of the employability skills delivered to students."

And he was determined to stress that Scottish higher education is a success story - on the basis of national population, Scotland's three universities in the top 100 of the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings make Scotland the global leader, with the US lagging in 16th place, he said.

"We knock America into a cocked hat. That's not a bad starting point, it seems to me."

olga.wojtas@tsleducation.com.

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