A Scottish solution to a UK and international problem?
Responding to an invitation from the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, Universities Scotland (the umbrella body for Scottish universities) last week published a paper entitled Towards a Scottish Solution. The purpose of this is to map out a possible framework for sustainable funding for the higher education sector, in the light of budget cuts and a new funding and tuition fees régime likely to emerge in England in the wake of the Browne review.
Without wanting to play down the overall scope and purpose of the paper, its key recommendation (or plea) is perhaps found in one sentence on page 9:
‘Graduates should contribute towards the cost of higher education in Scotland.’
There are, as you would expect, various riders and conditions and caveats (many of them focusing on widening access), but the essence of what the Scottish university Principals are saying is the Scotland’s universities cannot remain competitive without a contribution by its users alongside the substantial state investment, and they recommend that this contribution should be paid post-graduation. That is a position that I would also endorse.
The paper sets all this in the context of what it describes as a number of ‘important principles’ that should under-pin higher education, these being:
• International competitiveness
• A high-quality learning experience
• Wide access, regardless of socioeconomic background
• Research excellence
• Diverse demands, diverse missions, diverse excellence
• Partnership and engagement
• Responsibility and initiative: autonomous, sector-led change
• Financial sustainability
Of course I am very aware that I am commenting on the position paper of an organisation to which I shall shortly be contributing myself, and of course I do so in the knowledge of the very complex environment in which it operates, but I might take the view that the description of a ‘Scottish solution’ should perhaps have elements that set Scotland’s higher education system apart from that of everywhere else and paint a picture of specifically Scottish innovation and creativity. I say this because the above list of principles would, frankly, be any country’s list of principles. It is perfectly good, but not necessarily distinctive. I am looking forward to taking a more active role in this debate, and in the affairs of a higher education sector that has many hallmarks of excellence.