It's no more Mr Nice Guy

July 23, 2004

As front man for Scottish universities, Bill Stevely told ministers £100m more was needed. As he steps down, Olga Wojtas asks if cash is on its way

Scottish ministers must deliver at least an extra £100 million a year of public funds if Scottish universities are to remain competitive, according to Bill Stevely, the outgoing leader of Scotland's higher education principals.

This is the stark message reiterated by Professor Stevely in an interview with The Times Higher a week before the principal of Robert Gordon University relinquishes his post as convener of Universities Scotland.

Professor Stevely, known as the "Mr Nice Guy" of Scottish higher education, remained cautiously optimistic that the Scottish Executive would deliver the much-needed resources in the forthcoming autumn spending review.

Next month John Archer, principal of Heriot-Watt University, will take over as convener as Scottish universities prepare for a critical phase that will determine their future funding prospects.

Principals fear that their universities will be unable to compete internationally without substantially more money. Concerns have been heightened greatly by the new Higher Education Act, which allows English universities to boost their incomes by charging student fees of up to £3,000 a year.

Professor Stevely said: "The First Minister (Jack McConnell) has repeatedly made speeches where he talks very positively about the universities, and on more than one occasion has said we will not lose our competitive edge against England. We've talked through our spending review bid with Jim Wallace (the Lifelong Learning Minister), and I believe he now has a better appreciation of the need."

There could arguably have been no better time for Professor Stevely to have taken off the gloves while pledging "no more Mr Nice Guy". Professor Stevely said: "That's not my style. I believe in trying to make clear what our concerns are and then to argue them as logically as possible.

"If we can get a wide constituency to agree that we're right, ministers will come under pressure without my banging the table. Frankly, I suspect ministers are more likely to respond to the gloves-off bit when it comes from others who support us rather than from ourselves."

The softly-softly approach seems to have resulted in some successes. The powerful lay conveners of governing bodies have mobilised in support of their institutions, and there has been broad support from most sections of the Scottish media.

On top of this, the Scottish Parliament's cross-party enterprise and culture committee has warned the Scottish Executive that if it wants the economy to grow, it must invest significantly more in higher education.

Another big concern for Professor Stevely is the potential of the forthcoming higher education legislation to reinstate the binary divide between new and old universities north of the border.

He said: "If that's still the case in the redrafted Bill, even my pleasant way of dealing with things might get a sharper edge to it because that would be extremely damaging. But I don't believe that was the intention, and I expect it to be taken out."

Scottish university chiefs are worried by the Scottish Executive's draft Higher Education Bill to merge Scotland's higher and further education funding councils. They fear it will drive a wedge between old and new universities, with the latter classified separately from the pre-1992 universities and placed in the same category as higher education colleges.

They also worry that it will allow the central funding council greater control over what universities teach.

So will Professor Stevely end his two-year convenership at the end of this month with a sense of optimism about higher education? "It depends which day of the week you get me. When I've just listened to Jack or Jim, I'm quite positive. When I listen to some of the corridor gossip, I get quite downhearted. It is a critical time, and it really is important for (the Finance Minister) to find the money."

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