Scottish universities face shock of the new

April 16, 1999

Scottish higher education will wake up to new masters on May 7. It is in for a few surprises, says Lindsay Paterson.

Scottish higher education institutions have long been suspicious of a Scottish Parliament because they claim that it threatens their international standing. Indeed, the day after the Labour government's proposals for a Scottish Parliament were published in 1997, the only dissenting voice - apart from Tories and their allies - was a vice-principal of Edinburgh University, claiming that the parliament could endanger the university's reputation.

The problem for universities is that this claim has come to be treated with some suspicion, as an argument for unfettered and disdainful autonomy.

The dispute between autonomy and accountability illustrates graphically the new politics of higher education that will be inaugurated by the election of the Scottish Parliament on May 6. Institutions that want to continue to assert international eminence are likely to be required to show that any cultural capital gained is recirculated into Scotland - through conferences, seminars, research and consultancy.

For the older campuses, the novelty will be to engage with a Scottish civil society on which they mostly turned their backs during their long British interlude, from the founding of the University Grants Committee in 1919 to the founding of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council in 1993. For the colleges that, pre-SHEFC, used to be run directly by the Scottish Education Department, the change will be the advent of democracy - a definitive end to the SED's authority.

The parliament will have complete autonomy for almost all aspects of learning in higher education. It will also have responsibility for the SHEFC part of research funding and the research budget of the Scottish Office itself, together amounting to some 60 per cent of public research income.

It will be free to reform structures of governance, staff contracts and student finance. In fact, the only significant area of policy that will remain at Westminster will concern the UK research councils, and political pressure is bound to induce even them to pay attention to what the Scottish Parliament says.

Scots mythology hangs on to a belief that the country's whole education system ought to be socially open. That faith is part of the inheritance of the elected members of the new parliament. About 70 per cent of them will have tertiary qualifications, almost all from Scottish institutions, and mostly acquired during the past three decades, when the identity of Scottish universities has been the subject of intense political debate.

This background is one reason why a majority of the first parliament's members will be in favour of abolishing student tuition fees. Abolition is in the manifestos of the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, who between them will be able to outvote Labour because of the proportional representation system. If they can agree on how to get rid of fees, then - even if none of them is in government - they will probably be able to pass legislation (quite unlike the situation at Westminster). A substantial minority of Labour members will want to support them.

A majority may also be found for expanding access in new ways. Further education colleges in Scotland already have a much larger share of higher education students than they do in England (about one third compared with about one in 12). Thus, we might expect to see a net shift of resources towards them, which would benefit only universities that have a good record of partnerships with colleges.

A second significant change could be in governance. Part of the putative democratic tradition of Scottish education is that the system is public.

So there are bound to be political pressures to tie university governance more firmly to local civil society - for example, by requiring that university courts include representatives of local government.

National governance will also be controversial. There is likely to be pressure to abolish SHEFC as a needless and expensive quango and establish direct links between institutions and both the government and the parliament's education committee. This could provoke a debate about the distinction between necessary academic freedom - possibly entrenched in legislation - and indefensible institutional autonomy.

The universities have noticed that they need to cultivate allies. But they have left it dreadfully late, and the initiative is likely to lie with a new political class in all parties, with new commitments, new loyalties, and a new detachment from the British networks that the universities used to rely on so thoroughly.

Lindsay Paterson is professor of education policy at Edinburgh University.

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