New politicians, new ball game

November 6, 1998

Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy studies at Edinburgh University, is building a career as a conference Cassandra, expressing uncomfortable views.

Last autumn, he warned an Association of University Teachers Scotland conference on higher education and the Scottish Parliament that the parliament would weigh up 10,000 extra student places against 10,000 hip operations. The message was that higher education had to be prepared to fight its corner publicly, and that the fight could be bruising.

Since then, AUTS and the Educational Institute of Scotland have been assiduously lobbying the political parties. But higher education institutions have not been similarly proactive, and Professor Paterson was again a lone voice at the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals' forum.

Scotland's new parliamentarians are expected to come from a broad spectrum of society, and not all them can be assumed to be friends of the universities. Professor Paterson predicted that many of them would have grown up with the assumption that universities were guilty of an anglicised and parochial elitism. The truth of this assumption may be questionable; what is not is the strong opposition which many institutions had to a Scottish Parliament. With some honourable exceptions, higher education's support for the parliament has been muted; bland assurances of cooperation with whatever democratic system happens to be in place. The sector's role in scuppering devolution 20 years ago may have registered more sharply with Scotland's new political classes.

Higher education has a wealth of expertise to offer the parliament, but it may not be uppermost in MSPs' thoughts. Coshep is currently working on its "manifesto" for the post-devolution era. It will need to be more than usually cautious about the tone. Self-confidence must not be mistaken for arrogance, nor funding bids for whingeing.

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