Join local initiative to global outlook

July 10, 1998

Devolution and the arrival of the Scottish Parliament can be expected to enhance the distinctiveness of Scottish higher education as universities and colleges necessarily turn their attention to securing the best deal they can from the new Parliament with its tax-raising powers. Money talks.

This trend will be further reinforced if the government is foolish enough to insist on restoring the "Scottish anomaly" - which has been rejected so decisively by the House of Lords - and thereby discourages students from elsewhere in the United Kingdom applying to study in Scotland. Universities are global industries. While they are of immense value to their local communities, part of that value stems from their worldwide reach. They cannot afford to be parochial.

There are advantages in a relatively small system. Brian Wilson's description (left) of the initiatives he is introducing to drive policies for inclusion and access shows how relatively easily things can be done when the heads of all institutions can meet round one table.

Scotland has had other advantages, too. Public spending across the board for Scotland is substantially higher per capita than elsewhere in the UK - Pounds 4,826 compared with Pounds 3,885 in England in 1996-97. Only Northern Ireland does better. The money goes to the Scottish Office in its block allocation. This differential is likely to continue at least up until the election if for no other reason than that growing support for the Scottish Nationalists is making Labour nervous. But once the Parliament is in place, Whitehall may, as many in Scotland fear, become less generous.

A separate issue is how the Scottish Office distributes its block grant. On this, universities, once treated favourably compared to England and Wales, have been losing out recently with higher "efficiency gains" (2.75 per cent this year) so that per capita spending is now nearing the parsimonious level in the rest of the United Kingdom.

With the arrival of the Parliament, Scottish universities will need to lobby hard to protect their income. Education has an honoured place in Scotland and is expected to be highly represented among MSPs, but the balance may favour schools and further education over universities. Furthermore, the measures so far announced by Mr Wilson to help part-time students and the cost of the fees waiver, while they put up overall spending on higher education, channel the money to students rather than to institutions.

An additional worry for the leaders of Scotland's universities must be that a sizeable chunk of any extra money available to universities from the comprehensive spending review is expected to come through the research side. With the research assessment exercise being conducted UK-wide and funding council research money distributed selectively based on the results, Scotland's universities may find themselves losing out further to the Oxford, Cambridge, London golden triangle.

Scottish universities will need to persuade the Parliament to use its discretion and taxing powers to increase research spending. A Scottish research council is a probability, and the example already set by the Welsh and Scottish development agencies suggests that national pride will produce extra money for research that impacts on the local economy.

But if the need to woo local politicians is not to lead to an unhealthy degree of introversion, universities in Scotland, and their staff, will need to open up collaborative links at institution level, not only with universities elsewhere in the UK but also (as they already are) with comparable institutions round the world.

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