Scots fee debate is a 'non-starter'

Universities Scotland chief to argue it is 'futile' to consider move in downturn, writes Hannah Fearn

April 23, 2009

Attempts to ignite a fees debate in Scotland with a view to bringing its university funding system in line with England's are misguided, a conference will hear this week.

The event in Edinburgh, which is supported by Times Higher Education, will hear Wendy Piatt, the director-general of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities, argue that Scotland may need to rethink its funding system.

But a second speaker, David Caldwell, the director of Universities Scotland, is expected to insist that it would be "futile" to consider a major overhaul during the recession, and to warn that universities should not expect a significant increase in public funds or a change of policy on student fees in the immediate future.

A source involved with the conference said English delegates risked antagonising their Scottish counterparts if it were assumed that they would be keen to consider following the English system by charging students fees.

He said: "People in London have this terrible tendency to think that the whole world is an extension of it. There is no debate about fees. You need two sides for it to be a debate, and nobody in Scotland is talking about this."

The conference, scheduled for 24 April, will bring together leading figures from across UK higher education to discuss the future of funding and the implications of global competition for the Scottish sector.

Its organisers have posed the question whether Scotland can continue to rely so heavily on the public purse. Mr Caldwell is expected to argue that although funding increases cannot be anticipated in the short term, cuts must not be made.

"If we cut back, tens of thousands of young people capable of degree-level education will be denied that opportunity, and we will fall behind our international competitors," he will say.

"The right option is to seize this unique opportunity to upskill our workforce and to build the knowledge base, because these are the essential rungs on the ladder out of recession ... When money begins to flow more freely again, we need to do something to correct the fact that the UK invests too small a proportion of its national wealth on university education compared with other developed nations."

Dr Piatt will argue that under-investment in higher education will harm the UK economy, and that research and teaching funding must be increased immediately to maintain the country's world-class universities.

Given the conference's Scottish focus, she is also expected to query whether new funding arrangements, including fees, should be introduced there to guarantee investment.

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