Scottish merger may 'enhance FE status'

April 4, 2003

The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has just held its 100th council meeting but chairman Chris Masters hopes it will not survive to see its bicentenary.

The Scottish Executive has promised to merge Shefc with the four-year-old Scottish Further Education Funding Council, possibly in 2005, and Dr Masters believes the move will encourage genuine lifelong learning.

"I've been a fan of a tertiary education funding council for a very long time," he said. "But it will only work if you have the ability to move seamlessly through tertiary education provision."

He stressed that this would mean students who moved from higher to further education would be considered as successful as those who moved from further to higher education, with parity of esteem between the sectors.

"One is seen as a success and one is seen as a failure. It's not politically nice to say that, but that's the reality of the world.

"That's something one needs to change over time and one of the issues is to deliver joined-up tertiary education in Scotland. One of the mechanisms to do that is through a single funding council."

Dr Masters, a businessman who has been chief executive of Christian Salvesen and Agrekko, joined Shefc in 1995 and has been chairman since 1998. He said that he initially disagreed with the decision to set up the SFEFC as a separate entity in 1999 but now believes it was the right move.

"Mergers are always difficult. To get them to work, both sides need to be equally developed in their thinking. The thinking in higher education was sufficiently developed but how could it be within further education when it was starting from scratch?"

While there was no single funding council, a joint executive for Shefc and the SFEFC was decided on. And it is widely believed that ructions two years ago between Shefc and the sector sprang from senior council staff taking their eye off the higher education ball to focus on further education.

The Scottish Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee accused Shefc of "profoundly mishandling" its proposed reform of teaching funding, which critics claimed risked destabilising the sector.

Dr Masters said everyone agreed that the existing system was too complex and burdensome, but there was "a breakdown in effective communication".

Staff had done an amazing job in setting up a new funding council while continuing their higher education work, and it would have been extraordinary if there had been no hitches, he said.

"At the end of the day, we said, ' mea culpa , let's get it right'."

A funding system has now been agreed, and the health of relations can be judged by Universities Scotland producing a celebration cake for Shefc's 100th meeting. Brian Lang, principal of St Andrews University, who made the presentation, praised Shefc for its understanding of the sector.

The relationship had matured from an element of "us and them" to institutions and the council feeling they were on the same side in delivering the best possible higher education, Dr Masters said.

He dismissed fears that higher education would be marginalised within a single funding council. He envisaged a set of powerful committees dealing with specific areas, such as research, or financial stability, and argued that it would create a better system for higher education.

There is no doubt that Shefc's desire to foster international competitiveness is matched by caution over increased selectivity.

"I would argue that we want world-class excellence in research in Scotland.

But does it have to be in one institution? No," Dr Masters said.

The cohesiveness of Scottish higher education is a potential advantage, allowing international centres of excellence in different institutions.

"I would take issue with the view that you need to be globally excellent as an institution. I think it is dangerous to say, 'I'm going to have all my excellence in a single institution', or two institutions or whatever. What you learn from the corporate sector is that you concentrate on what you are good at."

While he said there was a strong argument that those who had already carried out excellent research were more likely to do so in future, he said it was crucial to encourage emerging areas that might not be in research-intensive institutions. Shefc has an annual £10 million strategic research development grant to help support national economic, social, health and educational priorities.

"A good example is the world-class computer games research at Abertay Dundee University, particularly relevant to Scotland in terms of economic development but carried out in a university that is not research intensive," Dr Masters said.

One of Scotland's advantages, which should be maintained, is diversity, with different institutions having different objectives, he said.

Scotland's size allows Shefc to have talks with all the principals and chairs of court in the one room about how to maintain a high-quality higher education system that simultaneously meet politicians' aspirations.

"Although we are part of a UK system, and I would argue we should remain so, we have got to recognise that there are things that are distinctive to Scotland."

The lifelong learning agenda is arguably better developed, with the participation rate already over 50 per cent and Scotland beating England in attracting non-traditional entrants, he said.

But Dr Masters warned against expecting too much of institutions in curing society's ills and against not concentrating enough on the key roles of teaching and research.

"There is a slight danger that they are almost being expected to solve everything from social justice issues to the economic problems of the country," he said.

"Knowledge transfer is important but if you don't have knowledge creation, there's no knowledge to transfer, and if you don't have competent graduates, there is no one to exploit the knowledge transfer," Dr Masters said.

Traditionally, institutions have produced many more commercially aware graduates than spin-off companies, and generally graduates have succeeded in what they've done, while many spin-offs have failed, he noted.

"That's not to say we shouldn't do these things. But let's not skew the agenda too much."


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