Scots must get steer the debate

September 26, 1997

As The THES went to press Scotland was still waiting to know how it will fare for extra cash. This was presented by Scottish education minister Brian Wilson as evidence of robustly independent decision-making. His announcement, when it comes, will be dissected minutely to see if Scottish institutions are being treated more harshly or more favourably than their English sisters, and will be seen as a portent of things to come under a Scottish parliament.

The outcome may also be used as yardstick to measure the sector's success in making its case for more money. The evidence of this week's THES-sponsored conference Higher Education and the Scottish Parliament (page 6), suggests that Scottish academics have some way to go in effective marketing. Dealing with the Scottish Office is the easy part. Within public spending constraints, ministers and officials have obviously seen higher education as worthy of support. A Scottish parliament will remain to be convinced.

As Thatcherism bit, many academics believed naively that a change of government would change the policy. A similar naivete now seems to be gripping those who assert that the new parliament "must" give the sector more money. A Scottish parliament is going to ask: more money for what?

There was a disappointing lack of vision at the Inverness conference, and failure to appreciate that more transparent policy-making means higher education having to fight its corner publicly alongside other interests. The question, as Lindsay Paterson of Moray House Institute of Education put it bluntly, will be whether another 10,000 higher education students is a better option than 10,000 hip operations.

The Scottish parliament appears to offer academics a golden opportunity. They should be masters of public debate. But first they must decide what they are promoting. Is their first duty to their local community or to internationalism? What is the role of further education in widening access to higher education? What safeguards should there be for staff and student mobility? No consensus emerged at Inverness.

Higher education cannot assume that it will be business as usual after the year 2000. The sector will face a new degree of scrutiny, and it will have to justify its cost. As Peter Mackay, former head of the Scottish Office Industry Department, warned, open argument in a Scottish parliament rather than behind closed ministerial doors will increase pressure on higher education rather than reducing it. The Association of University Teachers Scotland deserves congratulation for beginning the debate. But it has begun not a moment too soon.

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