Scottish funding reforms could hit sector's autonomy

Proposals risk compromising academic freedom, institutions tell task force. Olga Wojtas reports

October 9, 2008

The planned reforms to the university funding system in Scotland could erode academic freedom, the task force looking into the future of higher education north of the border has been warned.

Details of a new funding regime are likely to be published by Christmas, following the interim report of the task force, which is made up of representatives from Universities Scotland, the Scottish Funding Council and the Scottish Government.

The task force has promised more cash for universities, and "lighter-touch" regulation from the funding council, if universities support Government priorities - and in particular its drive to boost Scotland's economy.

There are proposals to allocate a single general fund to cover universities' core activities, with a new Horizon Fund dedicated to encouraging new initiatives.

But in a response to the interim report, the University of Strathclyde says it is concerned at the report's emphasis on universities' role in boosting the Scottish economy.

"The central thrust of the paper, that there should be 'something for something', is worryingly vague," it says.

And it sees a potential threat to academic freedom. "Too close an alliance with Government, in terms of being an uncritical vehicle solely funded to deliver on aspects of government policy, is inappropriate. Universities must continue to be allowed to use their autonomy to analyse government policy critically, particularly in areas of the social sciences," Strathclyde says.

In its response, Napier University approves the prospect of fewer spending restrictions, but says there are sections of the report that imply a more interventionist role from either the Government or the funding council. It wants more information on how universities' performance would be measured.

The University of Aberdeen says the promise of a lighter touch from the funding council "needs to be translated into fine detail to be credible".

The Royal Society of Edinburgh warns that while less oversight might seem to be a good thing, a buffer body is preferable to being directly accountable to the Government. There are many instances of European universities being "dramatically inhibited" in reacting to opportunities because of such direct accountability, it says.

Glasgow School of Art says that the lack of detail makes it difficult to comment other than to seek a commitment that the general fund will cover the full costs of all mainstream activities, including knowledge transfer, widening participation and capital.

The Horizon Fund could help small institutions and emerging subjects to build up specific areas, it believes. But it warns that this will achieve little unless the general fund can then support these areas once they reach the mainstream.

The Committee of Chairs of Scottish Higher Education Institutions says it fears that funding available to institutions could be less than the resources available to institutions south of the border, since the advent of tuition fees in England and higher education free to students in Scotland. It says it is the Government's responsibility to tackle any shortfall.

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