Posted tagged ‘Michael Russell MSP’

How should universities be run?

April 24, 2012

As readers of this blog will know, I chaired the panel set up by the Scottish government to review governance in higher education. This reported in January of this year, and the report was presented by the government to the Scottish Parliament. In presenting it, the Cabinet Secretary for education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, indicated his support for the report’s recommendations.

In fact there were 43 recommendations. Of these, 40 were unanimously supported by members of the panel. One member dissented from the remaining three. As is sometimes the case in such circumstances, much of the media attention consequently focused on these three issues, and in particular on our recommendation that the chairs of governing bodies should be elected.

However, the report had a much wider focus. Its key principles can be summarised like this: (a) that universities should be autonomous and independent, and that their staff should enjoy academic freedom; (b) that without prejudicing that autonomy, universities should join with the government in an annual discussion of national higher education strategy; (c) that each university’s processes and decision-making should be open and transparent; and (d) that universities should allow full participation by as many as possible in these processes. We recognised the success of Scotland’s higher education system and institutions, but we suggested that the sector needed to ensure that it had and retained the confidence and support of its stakeholders and the wider society. Beyond that, we argued that there should be a shared vision of higher education, and that reform would be more robust if there was more work on producing the objective evidence on which such reform could be discussed.

While there was some opposition to our proposals, it is my view that their implementation is vital. The intention behind this is to ensure that universities – the institutions vital to growth and prosperity – can secure and retain political and public support and confidence. Without this they will be at risk of decline.


University governance review in Scotland

June 29, 2011

I have previously pointed out in this blog that I have been asked by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, to chair a review of university governance in Scotland. The remit of this review was published by the government on Wednesday. The key principles against which governance is to be assessed are democratic accountability, autonomy, transparency, the effectiveness of management and governance, the clarity of strategic purpose, and its efficient implementation.

The review panel is now calling for submissions from interested parties. My invitation to do so can be found here. More specifically, those wanting to submit are invited to answer a number of questions, which can be found here.

This review will benefit from the submission of a wide range of views, and I hope that readers of this blog will be willing to support the exercise in this way.

Tuition fees in Scotland for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland

June 29, 2011

Recent events in England have created an issue for Scottish higher education. While in Scotland the principle of free access to universities is a central part of public policy, English higher education institutions can now charge tuition fees of up to £9,000, and most as we know have chosen to set fees at or near that level. This created a potential problem for Scottish higher education: if there were no fees for students from the rest of the UK, or low fees, the student places in Scottish universities would come under pressure from demand from south of the border, and this would create significant problems for Scottish students.

On Wednesday the Scottish Government took a significant step towards addressing this concern. The announcement by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, that students from the rest of the UK will be charged up to £9,000 to study at Scottish universities will protect student places while allowing the institutions to recruit students from the rest of the UK in a sensible manner. While this is a difficult decision, it is the right one and Scottish universities have welcomed the announcement.

In England there has been a rush by the majority of universities to charge the full permitted £9,000 tuition fee.  I am inclined to doubt that, in relation to fees for rest-of-UK students, this will be reflected across all Scottish universities. I would at any rate hope and expect that many will set fees at below this maximum level.  All will have to take decisions on this over the next two or three months, so that students who will shortly make choices about where to study in 2012 will have this information available to them.

Given the rather chaotic higher education policies being implemented in England, it is not easy for Scotland to maintain a different ethos in its system. So far it has been able to do so, and while there are some issues to be addressed, Scottish universities are able to operate in a much more stable and predictable setting than elsewhere in these islands. That is worth preserving.

Scottish education opened up

June 21, 2011

A very large part of successful policy formulation is good communication and the facilitation of open dialogue. One particularly interesting experiment with this is the Scottish government’s Engage for Education website. This contains information on education initiatives and policies, but interestingly it also has an interactive blog. The bloggers here include the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MP, as well as his junior ministers and some education officials. But perhaps even more significant is the facility for comments by the general public on the site, thereby creating a forum for education debate.

So for example a post on early childhood education prompted a comment by a teacher, and this in turn was followed by a response by the Cabinet Secretary.

Openness in political communication is always good. This website is an excellent idea, and it should be used actively by all those involved in education.

The search for a ‘Scottish solution’

December 17, 2010

Yesterday the Scottish government published a Green paper entitled Building a Smarter Future: Towards a Sustainable Scottish Solution for the Future of Higher Education. At its core is the view that the current development of higher education policy in England need not be a model for Scotland, and that in particular Scotland can continue to provide access to universities without fees (for Scottish students only, however).

In his Foreword, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Mike Russell, summarises the position as follows:

‘We are confident that public opinion in Scotland remains strongly in favour of ensuring that the prime responsibility for funding education at all levels remains with the state. Indeed the higher education sector in Scotland has confirmed its view that this Scottish tradition is of value and should be preserved. Consequently, our clear guiding principle in seeking long term stability for Scottish higher education – the so called “Scottish Solution” – will be the retention of public funding at the maximum sustainable level whilst also seeking new sources of revenue and enhancing existing ones and of course striving to get best value for every public pound and penny spent in and by the sector.’

The government’s plan is to gather all the information and data needed, through a working group to be established with Universities Scotland, so that the political parties can set out a higher education policy in the campaign for the Scottish elections in May. At the core of a successful policy, the Secretary suggests, will be a funding plan that will ensure that Scottish universities will not receive less funding than their English counterparts, who will now have the proceeds of the new and higher fees. It is not immediately easy to see how this can be achieved, but it is good that the government recognises the importance of equivalence of funding. The possibility of student contributions is not dismissed outright, but the risk is that students from outside Scotland become the main drivers of income, thereby potentially unbalancing the composition and attitude of the student population.

The debate in Scotland over coming months is bound to be interesting.

A Scottish solution to a UK and international problem?

November 2, 2010

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.