Jim Wallace, deputy first minister of the Scottish Parliament and minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, has pledged to maintain research funding for all Scottish institutions.
Mr Wallace, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, who was instrumental in axeing tuition fees north of the border, made it clear that he had no plans to follow proposals south of the border to create an elite tier of research universities.
Speaking to The THES in his first interview as lifelong learning minister since the parliamentary elections, he said he would be wary of creating a two-tier system in Scotland. He said it was important that the strongest research universities were properly supported and could compete at the highest level. "But I would not wish to see others, the non-research intensive, left behind. Far from it."
Virtually every institution had some area in which it had the potential to show excellence if it had not already done so, Mr Wallace said. "No one would describe the University of Abertay Dundee as a research-intensive university. (But) its reputation for games technology is growing, recognised not just in Scotland but across the world," he said. "We would be losing a lot and Scotland wouldn't be reaping its full potential if you had a system that basically wrote off universities such as Abertay, given that it has the ability to be a world leader in its own field."
Scotland's four strongest research universities have complained of a £210 million research funding shortfall compared with the top four English institutions. But Mr Wallace urged them to maintain their competitiveness in particular areas by joining forces with researchers in sister institutions. "I think we have to maybe start thinking out of the box on this," he said, adding that it was "a slight illusion" to think a huge amount of extra funding was necessary for research excellence.
Mr Wallace is presiding over an investigation of funding levels for Scottish further and higher education that will include an assessment of the potential impact of top-up fees south of the border.
The Scottish Executive paid institutions the funds they would otherwise have had from tuition fees, but Mr Wallace conceded there was no such commitment on top-up fees. What would happen in England was still unclear, he said, and the expectation that some institutions might have to establish bursaries raised questions of how much cash would be available for teaching.
But Mr Wallace warned that if extra money were put into English higher education to phase in a new system, he would expect this to produce more funds for Scotland through the Barnett formula. The executive as a whole decided where these funds went, "but if there were Barnett consequentials flowing from higher education, I rather suspect the higher education lobby would be very quick to suggest where it might go".
Mr Wallace played down fears that Scottish higher education was facing a funding crisis compared with England, and said the sector had had a real-terms increase each year since devolution, with Scotland spending 20 per cent more per head on higher education than England.
"I'm not going to say that our higher education institutions are awash with money. No one's being complacent in any way, but I think it's important to note that we have been putting money into higher education. When we come to the spending review next year, there will be quite a reservoir of evidence and material to draw on, perhaps to identify, if we're getting more resource, where it might best be directed."
The financial review will include estimates of changes in cross-border student flow following any new fee regime. There have been fears that Scotland could be flooded with English applicants trying to avoid top-up fees, but Mr Wallace said he had no plans for a quota system. "I think that one of the values of a university is its cosmopolitan nature. You can't put a financial figure on that."
Mr Wallace denied that his workloads as deputy first minister would leave him little time to focus on higher education. He had combined the deputy first minister post with justice minister in the previous parliament, which had involved a much heavier legislative load, he said.
"It has been said, and I've never contradicted it, that (enterprise and lifelong learning) is the portfolio I was more than happy to get." Colleges and universities had a key role in "growing the economy", not only through commercialising academic research but also through promoting a spirit of entrepreneurship in their students, he said.