Scots guarded as minister for change sets out his stall

Tensions mount as Michael Russell affirms multi-pronged reform agenda. David Matthews writes

August 11, 2011

If they are lucky, Scottish vice-chancellors will be enjoying their summer holidays on the beach.

But behind the scenes, tensions are mounting as the country's higher education sector approaches an autumn crunch point on several fronts.

Michael Russell, Scotland's education secretary, has had some difficult decisions foisted upon him by UK-wide cuts. Scottish universities are worried about a "funding gap" opening up with England.

Yet it is Mr Russell's ambitious plans for course consolidation and a governance shake-up that could produce the most friction with university leaders.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Mr Russell explained that he planned to rid Scottish universities of a "very substantial duplication" of courses.

"There should be competition between universities in certain regards, but we need a much clearer map of provision in Scotland so we know we're offering things in one place and we don't have to offer them in another," he said.

Although he is waiting for the Scottish Funding Council, which is drawing up the map, to reach its conclusions, he said it was possible to "envisage fewer universities offering a particular course".

Mark Batho, chief executive of the SFC, stressed that the review will look not just at universities but at colleges, too.

The council wants a "coherence of what (universities) are offering and what the colleges are offering" so that school qualifications flow seamlessly into university courses.

This will inevitably have a greater effect on those Scottish institutions that accept higher proportions of local students than on the likes of the University of St Andrews and the University of Edinburgh, Mr Batho said.

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, acknowledged that universities are doing "a lot of thinking about what they offer". But he emphasised that course changes would have to be "sector-led".

"(This is) more likely to deliver success than something externally imposed," he cautioned.

Gerry McCormac, principal of the University of Stirling, went much further. "It's an attack on the autonomy of the institutions. We should be able to determine the breadth of our activities. The logical conclusion is a planned higher education system," he argued.

'Accountability and transparency'

In mid-June, Mr Russell also announced a review of university governance, led by Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen.

It will consider whether institutions have an "appropriate level of democratic accountability and transparency".

Mr Russell admitted that he had caused something of a "frisson" earlier in the year when he floated the idea of elected principals, but said it was "not an outrageous idea".

"Trinity College (Dublin) has an elected principal. It seems to work pretty well," he said.

The minister also suggested the idea of elected rectors: "Maybe that's a way in which you have a form of accountability - an elected rector who chaired the court."

The University of Glasgow was singled out for criticism. Mr Russell said it had an "extraordinary constitution" and a "vast senate ... which is completely unwieldy. It should have gone in the 19th century. That's an issue that needs to be addressed."

Of all the items on Mr Russell's extensive agenda, it is the idea of governance reform that seems to make Universities Scotland most openly queasy. Mr Sim said that he "struggled to see that there's a big problem that needs to be solved".

He was also wary of the idea of elected principals. "It doesn't appear to have spread to other universities from Trinity," Mr Sim said. A leader elected "on the basis of popularity" is hardly likely to be able to take difficult decisions in a time of dwindling cash, he argued.

The sector awaits Professor von Prondzynski's recommendations by the end of the year.

The education secretary also wonders whether access targets should have legislative force.

"The question of access is now one we should move towards considering - and I'm not saying we're going to do it - a statutory underpinning. We've still not made enough progress," Mr Russell said.

Closing the gap between male and female participation, and even allowing students to do the traditional four-year Scottish degree over two, three or five years is also on his agenda.

"A lot of the debate in higher education has been too focused on money and resources ... (but) there are many other key issues. That's why I'm keen on a broad approach through legislation."

Split by the gap

For all Mr Russell's reforming enthusiasm, however, the biggest concern for Scottish universities, and probably his biggest headache, is the scale of the teaching "funding gap" that institutions say will open up between them and universities south of the border.

The gap measures the additional teaching funding the Scottish higher education sector would get by 2014-15 if it were allowed to raise tuition fees to the same level as in England.

There is a political consensus in Scotland, with the exception of the Scottish Conservatives, that tuition should remain free for Scots.

Yet funding is being squeezed just as in England, with teaching grants being cut by about 10 per cent this coming academic year.

In May, Universities Scotland estimated that the likely size of the teaching funding gap by 2014-15 would be at least £202 million, a figure it called "quite a conservative" estimate. This was based on the average English fee being £7,500. With the final average reaching about £8,400, the gap could be much wider.

A joint document from Universities Scotland and the Holyrood government, released in February, estimated that it would reach £263 million even if average English fees were £8,000.

Mr Russell's position has not changed since the level of English fees became known in July, and he is sticking to his own interpretation of the February document.

"I believe...an additional £100 million for higher education in Scotland is what we need ... to close that gap," he said. This sum is reached "after you take off various things" such as additional income raised from charging students from the rest of the UK, which the document calculated will raise between £41 million and £74 million.

Mr Russell stressed the difficulty of calculating the scale of any gap, since it is unclear how the new English market will work in practice.

But if it does prove to be bigger than £100 million, it will still be filled, he said.

The question of who decides its size is crucial. "There would have to be clear, agreed analysis of what that was. We're nowhere near that taking place," Mr Russell said.

Although the English charges are now known, Universities Scotland has not raised its estimate of the gap from the £202 million figure it produced in May.

In September, Mr Russell will unveil more detail about his reforms, and the Scottish Spending Review will make clear what money will be diverted to fill the funding gap.

So far, a major public schism between the government and Scotland's higher education sector has been avoided - but for how long?

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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