Delivering the annual Sir Malcolm Knox Memorial Lecture yesterday, he said society had failed Scottish universities, which do not charge home students fees, by not accepting “the fact that the building of a system of mass higher education comes at a cost”.
Lord Sutherland said that in 1946, only 2.5 per cent of young British people went to university. By 2002, the proportion in Scotland had risen to 50 per cent.
He also observed that the country that used to have just four ancient universities now has 19 higher education institutions.
Warning that universities could not afford to continue “without significant injection of taxpayers’ money or charges of one kind or another to the recipients”, he said suggestions that the funding gap could be filled by philanthropy or contributions from business were unrealistic. Efficiency savings could be made, he added, but were no solution.
“The Westminster government accepted this five years ago…but Holyrood has shown itself unwilling to face up to this,” Lord Sutherland said.
He argued that society had also failed universities by not questioning their role and purpose. “We – society, the taxpayers and the government – have let universities down badly by not being clear about what is expected of them.”
Lord Sutherland called on Scottish universities to privatise the faculties and departments the government was now refusing to fund, freeing themselves from state interference.
They could then set their own fees at a level that allows a “needs-blind” admission system, he said. “This is a staple of some of the best US private universities, [and] would be designed to channel a significant percentage of income from fees and other sources to support the best students who could not otherwise afford to enrol,” he said.
“These measures, seen as drastic by some, may well be forced on some of the best English universities. Scottish universities would be well advised to prepare for very tough post-election bargaining by examining the feasibility and desirability of such changes.”