A strategy for universities – looking at Scotland

In November 2007 the Scottish executive (government), in partnership with the Scottish universities (acting through Universities Scotland) set up a working group to look at the future of the university sector. This group – known by the not necessarily catchy name of the Joint Future Thinking Taskforce on Universities – was given the following terms of reference:

• how to optimise and shape the contribution which the Scottish university sector can make during the next 20 years to the Scottish economy, to Scottish culture and society, and to the political priorities of the Scottish Government
• what opportunities can be created and what barriers will need to be overcome to achieve that
• what resources will be needed and how they will be provided.

The taskforce produced an interim reportNew Horizons – earlier this year, and more recently a number of reports which essentially consider how to implement the recommendations of the interim report.

When the interim report was published, a number of institutions voiced their concerns.  The passage which prompted these concerns most was the following:

“In future, though, the Scottish Government will expect the university sector to demonstrate more explicitly how the funding it receives from the Government contributes to delivering against the National Outcomes, thereby ensuring there is alignment of publicly funded activity against the Scottish Government’s Purpose.” (page 9 of the report)

The concern felt in some Scottish universities has been that the trade-off being suggested by the taskforce – i.e. greater financial and operational autonomy in return for ‘alignment’ with the government’s policy objectives – would undermine institutional autonomy, and more particularly would jeopardise that traditional academic commitment to basic research and the integrity of university decision-making.

In many ways Scotland faces similar challenges to those we are facing in Ireland, though with some differences. In Scotland as in Ireland, tuition fees are a subject for hot debate. And in both jurisdictions the government wants the universities to play a larger role on the international stage.  The strategy process established in the Joint Taskforce is interesting, and has been conducted at a very significant speed. Even allowing for the controversial parts, the report of the taskforce contains an interesting analysis of the sector’s position and some recommendations as to its future. As Ireland prepares to undertake a strategic review of higher education, we could do worse than looking more closely at what is coming from our friends in Scotland.

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2 Comments on “A strategy for universities – looking at Scotland”

  1. Iain Says:

    and of course the Scottish Government abolished fees to ensure that education at all levels is free. Something else worth reflecting on. Unfortunately the devolution agreement does not give the Government control over most financial resources or taxation and so their freedom of movement is severely constrained, but nonetheless they are at least trying to stick to a principle that has a long tradition in Scotland (it being the first European state to provide universal, free school education to all since the 1500s

  2. universitydiary Says:

    Iain, you are right of course in your observation. However, I have visited two Scottish universities this year, and both of them were terrified about the medium term implications of not having fees. They believe that there will be a significant decline of Scottish universities, as against English ones. They may be wrong, of course, but its seems to be a widespread view.

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