Whither Scotland?

September 19, 1997

Peter Scott looks at the post-referendum prospects for universities north of the border

What are the prospects for Scottish universities in the context, first, of the likely evolution of the Union between Scotland and England following last week's vote for a Scottish Parliament; and, second, the growth of mass higher education in Scotland, Britain and the wider world?

Are the prospects for Scottish institutions different from those of their counterparts in England or, indeed, the rest of Europe? And does Scotland need a different kind of higher education system -more different than it already is, - because the implication of current debates about the future of higher education in Scotland is that devolution will stimulate divergence?

There are three possible answers to the question of what kind of higher education system Scotland needs.

The first emphasises the secular influences affecting all developed higher education systems, principally globalisation and the growth of markets. This answer suggests that Scottish universities and colleges will be reshaped by these influences more powerfully than by more specific national policies, whether Scottish or British. The message is one of convergence between Scottish and English systems. This is not because of the existence of political Union between the two countries, but because they are subject to similar forces. These forces include the development of a post-industrial society characterised by the production of "symbolic'' goods, the replacement of older class-, gender- and race-based social stratification by new lifestyle categorisations (such as being a graduate) and the growth of a new "knowledge'' economy in which the status of autonomous science and critical scholarship is challenged.

The second answer to the question of what kind of higher education system Scotland needs emphasises the changing circumstances produced, five years ago, by the repatriation of the Scottish universities and the creation of a unified Scottish higher education system; and, soon, by the establishment of a Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers.

These circumstances have created conditions that will allow, and possibly encourage, the growth of greater "distance'' between English and Scottish higher education systems. However, this "distance'' will be limited by the continuing existence of the Union. The most likely outcome under this scenario is that Scottish higher education policies will amount to local (and perhaps more generous) variations on policies adopted in England.

The third answer highlights the decay of "imperial" nation-states like Britain and the revival of older national and regional identities in the context of larger supra-national groupings such as the European Union. It emphasises the emergence of a new Scottish polity, whether fully independent or enjoying devolved government, that creates an entirely new context for the development of Scottish universities and colleges. Such a context would be that of a small nation committed to socio-economic and techno-cultural modernisation (although, awkwardly, with rearwards glances to "historic'' Scotland), which will be sharply different from that of the British "imperial'' state. The message is one of divergence between Scottish and English higher education, but not necessarily divergence according to a neat Scotland-England dichotomy, rather because of the larger market and global-local pressures to differentiate between institutions and systems.

For instance, the sheer number of English universities may make some type of formal stratification necessary with a premier division of research universities on "top" and teaching-mainly institutions at the "bottom". Within the framework of a British system it is inevitable that Edinburgh and, less securely, Glasgow will claim their due place among the research universities. After all, Scotland has to have one or two of the top universities.

But, in the context of a Scottish system, the case for formal stratification is less compelling. What would be achieved by including Edinburgh in the premier division and excluding, say Strathclyde? Perhaps informal differentiation would be as effective as formal stratification in Scotland.

Or other solutions, less feasible in the larger-scale English system, could be pursued, for example, much more active collaboration between institutions at postgraduate level and in terms of research (not excluding the possibility of establishing Scotland-wide graduate schools or research institutes).

These "answers'', of course, are contrived and simplified. The actual development of Scottish universities and colleges is likely to be characterised by elements from all three: the general impact of mass higher education; the influence of a post-devolution Union; and the process of differentiation (whether inspired by nationalism or, more probably, driven by the global/local market).

zIn the short run, the second "answer'' may be most relevant in terms of the development of Scottish higher education, but in the longer term the first and third may become more significant.

Peter Scott takes up the post of vice chancellor at Kingston University next year. This is a shortened version of his paper for next week's Higher Education and the Scottish Parliament Conference in Inverness sponsored by The THES.

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