Scots band together over commitment to research

Research is costly, but Scotland is against creating teaching-only institutions, writes Hannah Fearn

August 19, 2010

It comes as no surprise that as convenor of Universities Scotland, Bernard King's priorities are "funding, funding, funding".

It is the way he aims to tackle the challenges ahead that marks the principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Abertay Dundee out. "For me the issue is unity," he said.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Professor King said it was crucial to avoid any splintering of the sector, something he believes has happened in England.

"If we allow fragmentation ... we either hang separately or we hang together. It's much better to my mind to plan together not to be hanged at all," he explained. "Up here we have a view of what a university is and all universities share that view."

The Scottish view, he said, is that universities are part of "civic Scotland" and must be research active. "There has been a thrust down south for teaching-only universities. That is not the case in Scotland - we take a different view based upon Scotland's long-established tradition of university education. That's our starting point."

Professor King paid homage to his predecessor, Sir Muir Russell, saying he was a "smooth operator" who was able to introduce "a degree of unity up here which I don't think you see south of the border". He said he will seek to preserve that legacy.

With Professor King, head of a post-1992 institution, at the helm and Tim O'Shea, principal of the much older University of Edinburgh, as his deputy, Universities Scotland has a mandate to speak for all. It will use this voice to fight forthcoming cuts.

"(The funding cuts) are of such a magnitude that we can't comprehend the impact they will have, so I think talking about funding is really at the top of the agenda," he said. "It's going to be genuinely serious and we don't yet know the scale of what those cuts might mean."

Professor King believes Scottish education secretary Mike Russell does understand that universities are pivotal to the economic success of the country, but that there is more work to be done in making the case to ministers and civil servants.

"We will be working hard to see that the government recognises our economic impact. If I'm looking at the future of Britain I only want to see Britain in the context of a high-wage economy. That's going to require a graduate workforce," he said.

Despite the cuts, Professor King - a vocal advocate of widening participation - retains his commitment to maintaining the size of the Scottish sector.

"I don't think we can compete with the low-wage economies, so therefore it's a graduate economy (or nothing)," he said.

He described discussions over the introduction of a graduate tax or tuitions fees in Scotland, as a "work in progress", but acknowledged that decisions had to be made.

"Of course, high-quality higher education is expensive. You've got to pay for it, and we're going to have to think that through," he said.

Though they are all research active, Professor King will also use his role to promote universities as breeding grounds for essential skills.

"We tend to talk about our wonderful research but the missing bit is the core business, and the core business is teaching high-level skills," he said.

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