Which road for (new) Scotland?

April 11, 1997

David Bleiman praises the virtues of a buffer zone which allows universities to make their own decisions

In 1993 the Conservative government devolved Scottish higher education, with funding provided through a new Scottish Higher Education Funding Council. Now Scotland's universities stand on the brink of an even more dramatic change.

The Association of University Teachers (Scotland) has campaigned actively for a Scottish Parliament. Administrative devolution has certainly been an im-provement on remote control from London, but the missing ingredient is the democratic accountability which a Scottish Parliament can provide. Now that such a Parliament seems attainable, we must consider the detailed structures and policies which will determine the success of the project.

Higher education has a major contribution to make in the process of economic and social regeneration, innovation and progress which the new Parliament will foster.

Deeply rooted in their local communities and society, the Scottish universities and higher education colleges are also international institutions. As leading exporters in the service sector they are of major benefit to the economy. As centres of world-class learning, research and critical thought, they contribute to the open, socially responsible and outward-looking spirit which is characteristic of Scottish society.

There are, of course, dangers. Worst of these is the danger of a narrow parochialism which might be one strand in a Scottish Parliament peopled by politicians, many of whom will have risen through the ranks of local government. Some councillors are still bitter at the loss of education authority control over further education colleges and may try to assert political control over further and higher education. That is why AUT (Scotland) insists on the importance of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, whatever the political superstructure. As we recently told the Garrick committee (Dearing's Scottish arm): "Political interference is political interference whether from a Scottish Parliament or a UK one. Universities in a democratic society must be protected from such interference."

Anyone who doubts this need only consider the case of social theory at Paisley College of Technology (now University). In 1984, Alex Fletcher, then Scottish Office education minister, closed down the honours degree in social theory by ministerial diktat because the Government disapproved of the allegedly Marxist content of the course.

Now that Paisley and the other former central institutions and colleges of education have been removed from direct Scottish Office control and come within the responsibilities of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, such direct interference by politicians is not possible.

Academic freedom and the traditional autonomy of the universities are essential ingredients in a healthy civic society. They have contributed towards a critical spirit in Scotland throughout the period of the Thatcherite project; and they will contribute towards a very positive, though never unquestioning, role for higher education in the project of the Scottish Parliament. We are calling for an open and wide-ranging debate on the detailed arrangements for the funding and planning of higher education and on the respective roles of individual institutions, a widely representative planning and funding council and the Scottish Parliament itself with its innovative committee structure.

Quangos will be an endangered species. At a recent seminar on quangos under a Scottish Parliament we won support for our view that in some cases it is useful to have a buffer between government and service providers.

The efficacy of SHEFC is no accident. When Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth was steering the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Bill through the Commons in 1992, he was forced to accept a number of amendments promoted by AUT (Scotland). These resulted in a number of SHEFC council members being currently engaged in the provision of higher education.

Tam Dalyell even extracted from Forsyth a commitment to consult AUT (Scotland) prior to the establishment of SHEFC. There followed a flood of detailed consultation documents which set the pattern for a quango which has been more open, consultative and transparent than most.

The successor to SHEFC does need to be more representative of the whole community and should have planning powers and issue public advice to the Scottish Parliament on the needs of the sector.

Financial constraints will al-ways place limits on institutional autonomy. Universities must be free to take their own decisions but they will do so in a funding environment determined by the Scottish Parliament (and the views of Scottish voters on whether that Parliament should have tax-raising powers).

In the short term, we face a potential funding crisis when the moratorium on efficiency gains ends. The real cut of 5.5 per cent, currently pencilled in for 1998/99, would plunge the system into financial crisis before the Scottish Parliament opens its doors. We will lobby the next Scottish Secretary to avert such a catastrophe.

David Bleiman is assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers.

This year AUT (Scotland) celebrates 75 years of service.A joint conference with the Scottish Trades Union Congress (in Inverness on 22nd/23rd September) will discuss higher education and a Scottish Parliament. Further information may be found on the AUT(S) web site at http://www.aut.org.uk/scotaut/scotconf.html.

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