Principals spurn top-ups

August 5, 2005

Scotland's university principals show no sign of calling for top-up fees north of the border despite some fears that increased English fees could bolster budgets there and eventually threaten Scotland's ability to compete in the higher education market.

Seven of the ten principals who responded to a Times Higher survey categorically ruled out top-up fees. And no university head responding to the survey called for them. But several principals warned that Scottish institutions must be as well resourced as their English counterparts.

Virtually all the principals believed Scotland was taking adequate steps to remain competitive, notably through "research pooling" and the modernisation of pay for staff.

But many feared this could be effective only in the short term. Scotland's spending review last year gave higher education a funding boost, with a 30 per cent increase so that its budget would exceed £1 billion by 2007-08, raising the question of how the sector can justify more funds in the next spending review. But the principals were largely bullish in the survey, challenging the Scottish Executive to make this a beginning rather than an end.

Tony Cohen, principal of Queen Margaret University College, said 2004 had been "nothing more than a belated and pretty partial catching-up exercise. The world does not stand still. Income needs to increase remorselessly."

Sir Muir Russell, principal of Glasgow University, said few other sectors contributed so much to Scotland's prosperity, reputation and competitiveness.

"We have been grateful for the additional resources received and are planning to use them responsibly and effectively. That, in itself, provides evidence of why the Scottish Executive can be confident that investing more in the higher education sector will pay dividends."

But John Wallace, principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, warned: "We have to maximise other income streams."

The principals also had a clear sense that post-devolution Scotland had a different ethos from England, now that top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year have been agreed from 2006 in the south.

Andrew Hamnett, principal of Strathclyde University, said that introducing fees was a frank admission by ministers that they could not argue for university funding in preference to areas such as health, despite universities' economic importance. "This has not been the position adopted in Scotland, where the importance of universities to the life and livelihood of Scotland has been explicitly recognised," he said.

Peter Syme, Scottish director of the Open University, warned that the implications for part-time provision south of the border after top-up fees are introduced in 2006 have not been fully thought through. English institutions that depend mainly on part-time students, notably the Open University and Birkbeck, University of London, may suffer because they cannot increase fees in the same way or have them paid upfront.

"Scotland has thus far avoided a policy in respect of fees that disadvantages the part-time sector," he said, adding that this must continue because part-time courses were cost-effective, flexible and could help reduce the skills gap among the 80 per cent of workers not educated to degree level.

Ten of the 20 principals in Scotland responded to the survey.

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