Task force considers reforms including mergers and abolishing SFC. Tariq Tahir reports
Reforms aimed at creating one Scottish university that ranks among the world's top 20 institutions, and mergers in the rest of the sector, are up for discussion by the task force looking at higher education north of the border.
Ideas to be discussed include scrapping the Scottish Funding Council to give university principals direct responsibility for managing public resources against set targets, as well as the introduction of a "teaching assessment exercise".
The task force, made up of the Scottish Government and universities, was set up after last year's budget settlement, which disappointed many in higher education. Government officials have drawn up seven models to help map out various future routes for universities.
The ruling Scottish National Party wants higher education to contribute more to the nation's economy. Scotland's universities produce 1 per cent of the world's published research from 0.1 per cent of the world's population. The University of Edinburgh is ranked 23rd in Times Higher Education's world rankings; the next highest rated is the University of Glasgow, at 83. Aberdeen follows at 137 and Dundee at 171; no other Scottish institutions are in the top 200. Moves to ensure a single top-ranked institution could mean mergers or the redistribution of funding.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "This task force is about radical thinking that can help prepare our higher education sector for the global challenges we face as a country over the next 20 years.
"Our work will be vital in challenging universities and Government on what we expect from each other and higher education's contribution to our people, society and economy in a changing world. What may have suited Scotland in the past is unlikely to serve us as well in the future.
"As part of this challenge, we have produced several models showing how the relationship between the Government, the Scottish Funding Council and universities might be redefined in the future. No one model contains the right answer; they were not designed for that purpose.
"The value in these models isn't in what they say but in what they do; namely, stimulating a discussion that moves the current thinking beyond variations of the status quo. This is the kind of fresh thinking that is needed if we are to build a smarter Scotland."
The University and College Union Scotland, which has not been included in the discussions, has criticised what it calls the debate's narrow scope. Tony Axon, a UCU spokesman, said: "This is all about structures and funding models, but it fails to address the issues about the purpose of higher education in a modern Scotland.
"Universities are not businesses. They are collegiate bodies of scholarship and research where the staff have ownership of the university, have academic freedom and are involved in their governance. There is no collegiate model (among these seven) whereby the staff have responsibility for their profession."
Dr Axon said: "We are in favour of the buffer body, the SFC, not in favour of direct government control or of the principals being given ultimate control."
UP FOR DISCUSSION
The Scottish Government's seven possible models for the future of the sector
The Status Quo
This would feature stable student numbers and unchanged controls on subjects such as law and medicine. Research would still be world class, although costs would begin to rise and the gap in knowledge transfer would remain. Gradually, Scotland would become less competitive.
Under this model, the creation of economic growth would be explicitly defined as the primary role of universities. Research funding would be directed towards this outcome.
The Government would control all subjects based on labour market projections and could drive mergers if it wished. Research funding would be based on competition, with the Government providing extra money to meet demand in defined areas.
Funding would be passed to the higher education sector, with university principals replacing the Scottish Funding Council. A concordat between higher education and the Government would see universities manage resources in return for meeting targets. The Government could intercede if universities faced going bust.
A new "teaching assessment exercise" would fund teaching based on outcomes achieved rather than on places filled. This would also drive mergers.
Centrally differentiated Funds would be targeted to create one world top-20 university; the rest of the sector would focus on skills and applied research. Direction of the SFC would be near the limit of ministerial power. Teaching would focus on the needs of business, applied research and knowledge transfer.
The Government would buy a fixed number of places at Scottish universities. Once filled, institutions could recruit students from elsewhere and charge them unregulated fees. Schools and colleges would deliver more first-year university courses.