Scottish higher education is reacting cautiously to proposals for a radical new funding system that would reward institutions for their success in tackling government priorities.
The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council this week held a conference at Glasgow Caledonian University to debate an independent report it commissioned from PA Consulting on the future of the sector.
Carl Atkinson, of PA Consulting, said core funding did not encourage institutions to invest in change, since it was almost entirely tied to "traditional" teaching and research.
The report suggests a shift to "investment partnership", whereby Shefc would fund institutions on the basis of what they say they will deliver. Institutions would each decide which government priorities to focus on. This would encourage diversity, Dr Atkinson said.
David Bleiman, Scottish official of the Association of University Teachers, said the proposals might offer the prospect of a better balance between institutional autonomy and meeting the needs of society.
Mr Bleiman said institutions were wary of being accountable to politicians but the only way in which society could set its priorities was through the political process. He said this had gained greater legitimacy north of the border with the advent of the Scottish Parliament.
David Caldwell, director of Universities Scotland, said there had to be more clarity about the sector's main functions and what was to be funded. He said he was "not wholly persuaded" by the investment partnership model, but the report was helpful in pointing out a lack of appropriate funding.
Mr Caldwell said social inclusion and knowledge transfer were major areas where there were now apparently public-policy expectations of the sector, but no established mechanisms for funding them except at the margin.
Ian Johnston, principal of Glasgow Caledonian University, said the report's underlying thrust, that rewarding excellence was "the thing to do", was not immediately obvious. Perhaps the thing to do was to pour money into areas that needed remedial action, he said.