No tartanised Westminster

September 5, 1997

On Sunday campaigning will resume with a bang in Scotland with only four days to go before the vote.

What will devolution mean for higher education? Certainly no pot of gold. If Scotland votes as expected next Thursday, for a parliament with tax varying powers, there will be no dramatic loosening of the Scottish Office pursestrings. Even if the parliament, due to start work in January 2000, opts to use its full tax-raising powers, this would bring in only Pounds 450 million, 3.2 per cent of the Scottish Office budget of Pounds 14 billion.

There will be many competing claims for a share of that 3.2 per cent, such as health, social services, agriculture and other educational sectors. Nor can there be any real certainty that if it uses these powers, Scotland can also expect to continue to receive the favourable funding it now gets from Westminster.

Even if the sums are minimal or represent no net gain, a yes vote for taxation powers is as crucial as a vote for the parliament itself. This is an issue of democracy and accountability. Funding powers are imperative to give the parliament legitimacy and prestige, otherwise it will be nothing but a talking shop, marginalised both at home and abroad.

The Scottish parliament must be more than this, for it is no tartanised Westminster, but a radical new relationship between the people and government. It is to be accessible, open and responsive, with organisations and individuals encouraged to participate in decision-making.

Scottish higher education can only benefit from this. The Garrick committee highlighted the Scots' strong belief in the value of education for its own sake, and to overcome economic or social disadvantage. And Garrick revealed that the Scottish Office clearly sees higher education as a good investment, with public spending on teaching per full time student around 10 per cent more each year in Scotland than in England.

Scotland has long had higher participation rates and greater success at enrolling students from less affluent backgrounds, though there is some doubt as to whether this persists after recent expansion south of the border (see page 12). A strong lobby will be rightly concerned to defend and build on that tradition.

Scottish institutions have already seen benefits from administrative devolution. In 1979 the universities were excluded from the political package, seeing the University Grants Committee as guardian of their national and international status. But a series of damaging moves which ignored Scottish needs softened resistance to a Scottish Higher Education Funding Council. There is now a substantially changed mood, especially as there is apparently no question of weakening access to United Kingdom research funds, and quality assurance will, it is assumed, be UK-wide.

Scotland's compactness has allowed SHEFC to take a coherent strategic approach, hampered south of the border by the sector's size and diversity. This has been boosted by the principals of all the Scottish higher education institutions presenting themselves in a single body, which has no English equivalent.

Far from Scottish higher education diminishing in national and international terms, it has taken the lead in areas such as new technology, through the Metropolitan Area Networks, career development for contract research staff, the needs of students with disabilities, and promoting regional regeneration.

The white paper does not set out a blueprint for the Scottish parliament. But it articulates concern at the extent to which vital public services are run by unelected bodies. This paves the way for reform of SHEFC, particularly if it is to be further strengthened by taking over further education funding. A broader membership would increase its credibility with policy makers. Higher education has growing importance in the renewal of the Scottish economy. A Scottish parliament will enhance that role.

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