Serious Scots

December 18, 1998

Readers could be forgiven for believing that much of the Scottish National Party's "People's Assembly on Education" was devoted to a row between the Association of University Teachers (Scotland) and the Educational Institute of Scotland (THES, December 11). Had that really been the case, the people assembled would have voted with their feet.

Whatever Ian McKay, assistant secretary of EIS, may have said later about the standard of academic staff in institutions such as Napier and Paisley universities, nothing of the sort was said at the meeting.

Angela Roger of AUT(S), who gave the keynote presentation on higher education, secured a number of key pledges from the SNP education spokesperson, Nicola Sturgeon, who showed a reassuring awareness of the international importance and cultural diversity of the Scottish universities.

Ms Sturgeon promised to support a tertiary education subcommittee in the Scottish Parliament, as part of an education committee with representatives of lecturers, students and others, and with a transparent, consultative approach. She supported retaining the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council as the "operative link between the Scottish Parliament and the higher education institutions". On student funding, she claimed that the abolition of tuition fees and the restoration of student grants would only be possible in an independent Scotland, but promised that, if necessary, an SNP government would pay the fourth-year tuition fees of English, Welsh and Northern Ireland students in order to end the so-called "Scottish anomaly" now under investigation by the Quigley committee.

As the Scottish Parliament elections of May 6 draw closer, it is fascinating to watch the increasing realism that is creeping into SNP policies. Of course, the grand pledges of the 1997 manifesto are still waved about - as they were literally waved in Ms Sturgeon's direction by a disgruntled student representative. But many of these are now to be realised in the "independent Scotland" of SNP dreams, while in today's politics, the programme is much more modest.

As Sturgeon admitted: "Whatever government is elected next May will have the same amount of money for Scottish education." Tax-varying powers might raise more money, but the SNP has yet to decide whether to include a tax rise in its manifesto. Such caution from the Nats! And this at a stage when, as Ms Sturgeon agreed, "denial of access to the civil service has hampered the SNP policy development". Wait until the Scottish Office mandarins are let loose on the nationalists I David Bleiman

Assistant general secretary Association of University Teachers Edinburgh

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