Which road for (new) Scotland?

April 11, 1997

Under a Scottish parliament academic freedom must be protected but institutional autonomy should be subject to proper planning, says Ian McKay

Those of us involved in the day-to-day practice of educational policy formation in Scotland may soon have to face up to a new political reality - a Scottish Parliament.

Education, including higher education, in Scotland is different from south of the border. Higher education was a more central part of Scottish life than in the rest of Britain - at one time Aberdeen could boast of more universities than England. Scottish universities remain popular. Scotland enjoys a substantial net influx of students from other parts of Britain and attracts substantial numbers from abroad. It also has a higher participation rate among its own young people.

The Scottish system of higher education has a long-held adherence to a more generalist approach, offering a broader and rounder experience to students. It is better, too, in its continuance of the four-year honours degree - a model much closer to our European counterparts than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

But this also makes it more vulnerable. As the Government's funding of higher education drives managers to try to force quarts and gallons into a pint pot, the four-year degree is an obvious target. Real problems arise because of the system of student support.

Critics will contend that if an English university can produce an honours graduate in three years why should we take four? The defence we have is our record. Scottish higher education can boast a better quality of secondary/tertiary linkage than elsewhere, the rate of success in attracting research funding is very creditable, while the effectiveness of the Scottish educational lobby makes it a difficult area for Treasury-minded politicians to attack.

Scotland's higher education sector will be best served as the "jewel in the crown" of a Scottish Parliament. The Educational Institute of Scotland is a member of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and continues to promote the convention's view that "education at all levels" should "fall within the powers of Scotland's Parliament".

However, it would be wrong to assume that every voice within Scottish education would welcome coming under the Parliament. It would be all too easy for a Scottish Parliament to become a bureaucrat's dream, and this is why a central feature in the policy position promoted by the EIS has been subsidiarity. This much-maligned piece of Euro-speak could prove important for all of us concerned that devolution does not become centralisation by another name. While a Scottish Parliament would control education in Scotland, the day-to-day running of the education system should be devolved to the level of local authority, college or university.

The recent report of the Commission on Scottish Education made the useful distinction between institutional autonomy and academic freedom. The latter is a right to research and report with complete freedom from political, commercial or other interference, and will, I am sure, be a fundamental part of the subsidiarity principle adopted by a Scottish Parliament. However, if institutional autonomy means a licence to embrace disciplines of the institution's own choosing, then this is not something which can sit happily in a context of integration and partnership, far less proper planning of resources.

Some will argue that higher education workers operate within a UK community rather than Scotland, and therefore the Scottish Parliament must be trammelled in its powers if these workers' interests are to be protected. We would reject this view. The individual institution is the employer, and indeed the recent explosion in local bargaining indicates a continuing and often worrying trend in that direction. Certainly the role and influence of UK-wide bodies, such as the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, would alter, but it would be unlikely that the essential interests of employers or employees could not find a fitting outlet which integrated with the UK higher education scene.

For too many commentators and organisations working at the UK level, understanding of the national question in Scotland is patchy and poor. The establishment of a Scottish Parliament offers the opportunity now of a new and more open approach to government - legislating in a different way, promoting positive local-based solutions.

Those who continue to argue that higher education should somehow be "different" must answer a pragmatic question - how would you rather be governed, as an administrative afterthought of some Department for Education and Employment in Whitehall, or as the successor of a long line of educational excellence under a Scottish parliament objectively, where are the interests of those of us involved with Scottish higher education more likely to lie?

For the EIS, progress lies as part of a system where a new style of national policy-making allows for sensible decisions to be made over resourcing and the development of the many progressive and new ideas which have for too long been lost because our education system has been directed by an ideology which was not its own.

In reasserting our political identity through a Scottish Parliament, educationists in Scotland can also re-forge an educational identity which continues to be among the best in the world.

Ian McKay is assistant secretary, the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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