Why size isn't everything

July 10, 1998

The government has sanctioned one anomaly in its refusal to fund a fourth year at Scottish universities for non-Scottish students. But, asks Olga Wojtas, how different is higher education north of the border?

Any debate on Scottish tertiary education invariably concludes that size does matter. Scotland's compactness means that the key players, both inside and outside education, all know one another, and familiarity has tended to breed connections rather than contempt.

But size is not everything when it comes to national variations. The English and Scottish systems have evolved from separate traditions, and despite frequent convergence in government policy over the past 20 years, the structure of further and higher education north and south of the border remains radically different.

The most obvious distinction is that Scottish tertiary education dovetails with a broad-based school system, in which pupils study a range of subjects rather than narrow specialisms. This is set to be reformed under the Higher Still initiative, which creates a single system of courses and qualifications across the academic and vocational divide. Although the intention is to increase options for young people, rather than straitjacketing them into a particular stream, there are fears that the new two-year Advanced Higher could unwittingly drive universities down an unacceptably narrow curricular path. But it is uncertain how many pupils will want, or have the opportunity, to take Advanced Highers when they are launched next autumn.

Higher education cannot be seen as the sole preserve of the universities, since another distinctive Scottish feature is the major role played by further education colleges. The colleges offer nearly 30 per cent of all Scottish higher education, compared with only 13 per cent in England and Wales.

Scotland also has its own approach to funding tertiary education. While further and higher education are the responsibility of their respective English funding councils, regardless of what type of institution offers the course, Scottish funding is firmly divided by sector. The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council is responsible only for its 21 designated higher education institutions, while the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department directly funds further education colleges, including degree and Higher National courses.

But further education will belatedly win its own funding council in 1999, seven years after forcing former Tory Scottish secretary Michael Forsyth to leave the legislative door open. The Scottish FEFC will be a different creature from SHEFC since the Scottish secretary retains a statutory duty over further education provision, but both councils come under the Scottish Parliament, which holds its first elections next year.

Many educationists urge a moratorium on several government moves, notably student support, until these can be debated by the new Parliament. But the bulk of controversial issues comes down to a question of hard cash, and there is no sign that the Scottish Parliament will have a looser grip on the purse strings. Using its full tax-raising powers would bring in only Pounds 450 million, a mere 3.2 per cent of the Pounds 14 billion Scottish Office budget, and there will be many competing claims, including health and social services.

But there is nonetheless optimism that the tertiary sector will benefit from more direct links with government.

"I hope that there will come out of this a new relationship between Scottish higher education and government, where we are partners in the future of Scotland and not just there with our hand out, asking for money," says Sir Stewart Sutherland, principal of Edinburgh University, which has just set up the Governance of Scotland Forum to support the parliament through academic research.

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