Posted tagged ‘Scotland’

Lighting the darkness

June 18, 2017

Amongst the things I like about living in the North-East of Scotland are mid-summer nights. From early June to mid-July it is never totally dark. Last night it was beautifully war, and I went for a country walk at around midnight, returning at 1 am. This is what I saw as I left the house.

Ythsie at midnight

And this was the sky on my return.

Ythsie at 1 am

This may not be the warmest place in Britain, but it is one of the most beautiful.

 

Scotland’s decision

September 18, 2014

I imagine that all readers of this blog know that, today, Scotland decides in a referendum whether it will remain part of the United Kingdom or become an independent state. In this blog and elsewhere I have written about some of the implications for higher education of this decision, whichever way it goes.

I have written to staff of RGU in the final days before the referendum, and you can see this communication below. Right now it is my hope that as many people as possible are voting, and that the result will allow all those affected by the decision to see the future positively and with confidence. I know it will not be easy for many, but I hope that any disagreements and divisions will heal quickly.

I shall comment more on the outcome itself once it is known. Tonight I shall be at the Aberdeen counting centre, which is in my university.

As I write this, the Scottish independence referendum is 11 days away, and right now the outcome is too close to call. As I know from emails I have received from colleagues, and indeed from students, over the past few months, there are strong opinions in the RGU community on both sides of the question. That of course is how it should be, and I hope that the university has been a safe place in which to put forward views and be heard in a respectful way.

Once the votes are counted we will know what constitutional future lies ahead, though not yet exactly what form some of the more precise aspects will take. If the vote is Yes, there will be national, and indeed international, discussions and negotiations, and these will stretch over the next two years at least. If the vote is No, there will still be detailed debates about how Scottish devolution should develop. In each scenario there will be implications for universities, though I suspect these will not be dramatic either way.

I do however hope that this university, and its staff, will play an active role in the process that is to come. RGU, I believe, represents much of what is best in Scotland, and I shall seek to ensure that we are heard in the discussions that are due to take place. I hope that colleagues who have something to contribute will also be prepared to participate, and I would be happy to hear from anyone who would like to do so. But whatever your views may be, and however you feel about the referendum outcome, I hope that this will be a supportive and collegial place for you to be over the time ahead. Let us make sure that we are active and constructive contributors to plans for a bright future for all of this country’s people.

Scottish independence and higher education: a Commons committee perspective

August 11, 2014

This post was first published by the website The Conversation

On August 5, the House of Commons Committee for Business, Innovation, and Skills (BIS) published a report on the impacts of Scottish independence on higher education, business, and the postal service. But the committee’s somewhat unoriginal recommendations don’t really extend beyond a large-letter “No” addressed to the Scottish government.

For anyone imagining the BIS report is an impartial investigation, it is worth pointing out that the committee consists entirely of members of the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. These parties are all firmly committed to the case against Scottish independence. So it comes as no surprise that their conclusions constitute fairly standard rejections of the agenda set out in the Scottish government’s white paper on independence.

In relation to higher education, the committee decided to focus on two issues only: the question of tuition fees for students from the rest of the UK, and the possibility of the maintenance of a single research area in the British Isles. We can assume these particular choices were made because, in the eyes of the politicians involved, they pose the greatest difficulty for those advocating independence. Other important issues – such as academic and student migration, and further aspects of research strategy – were ignored.

What is more, the committee’s treatment of the two chosen issues is fairly superficial. The report contains minimal analysis, beyond the listing of some submissions made to the committee. It concludes that, if Scotland were both independent and a member of the European Union, it is doubtful whether it could continue to charge tuition fees to students from the rest of the UK.

Others have concluded similarly, as in recent research from the University of Edinburgh. But legal advice provided to Universities Scotland may offer a basis in EU law for the Scottish government to continue charging fees to students from the rest of the UK, post-independence.

At present, the UK is home to a single research area. This means that England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland contribute public funds to one pot. Grants are then awarded by Research Councils UK on a competitive basis. The report states that in the event of Scottish independence, a single research area would not be “practical” or “desirable”. Even if everyone agreed to a common research area, the report suggests that each jurisdiction would have to fund work by its own researchers, with no cross-border subsidies.

Some academics have already expressed concerns about the implications of independence for research funding. But I would suspect that in the event of Scottish independence, some mutually acceptable arrangement can be reached that maintains much of the UK research community, while also allowing Scotland to develop its own national research strategy.

Of course, the effect of a vote for independence may not be as significant for universities as in other areas, because education is already a fully devolved matter under the Scotland Act 1998. There is a Scottish cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning (currently Michael Russell), and a Scottish Funding Council, which distributes funding to universities and colleges and oversees national strategy.

Even now there is no such thing as a UK higher education “system”. Wales and Northern Ireland also have their own frameworks, which differ from that of England. Perhaps the question that the committee should have assessed is whether, if Scotland votes for independence, some UK-wide structures could or should be maintained.

While there is significant divergence now between Scotland and the rest of the UK in higher education, there are also common traditions and links between universities across these islands. This is expressed most visibly in the existence of a UK-wide academic and student community, in shared quality assurance principles, and in the assessment of research quality.

But there are very significant differences in funding. And it may be that, in future, there will also be differences in the principles of governance, arising from the review of Scottish higher education governance that I chaired in 2011-12.

The parliamentary committee clearly decided to make a partisan contribution to the independence debate. It has missed an opportunity to make a thoughtful assessment of how a common concept of higher education could continue to be nurtured in a new constitutional settlement, whether that involved independence or greater devolution.

A little bit of Scotland

September 29, 2013

Although I have now been in the North-East of Scotland for well over two years, I am still on a journey of discovery. Today a friend took us to see some fishing villages on the coast between Elgin and Fraserburgh. This stretch of coastline includes the location for the 1980s movie Local Hero, Pennan. But the place I found most wonderful of all was the the tiny village of Crovie – a gem that has been left largely untouched by modern development, although what were once fishermen’s cottages are now largely holiday homes, though beautifully maintained.

crovie1

For readers of this blog who do not know Scotland’s North-East, it is well worth a visit.

Regulating Scotland’s universities

November 30, 2012

Following its pre-legislative paper on post-16 education of September 2011 – Putting Learners at the Centre – the Scottish government has now published the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill. Much of this is concerned with further education, but there are some important provisions affecting universities. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, has also confirmed his intention of introducing in due course a wider piece of legislation on higher education governance and related matters.

The new Bill addresses universities mainly by attaching new conditions to public funding channelled through the Scottish Funding Council. The first of these imposes a new condition ‘that the Council must, when making a payment to a higher education institution …, require the institution to comply with any principles of governance or management which appear to the Scottish Ministers to constitute good practice in relation to higher education institutions.’ This is a reference to the proposed code of practice to be issued in response to the recommendation made by the Review of Higher Education Governance that I chaired and which reported in January of this year. A code is currently being drafted by a working party established by the Scottish university chairs of governing bodies, and if accepted by the government this will become the source of the ‘principles of governance or management’ mentioned in the Bill.

The second relates to widening access to university by disadvantaged socio-economic groups. The government will under the terms of the Bill be able to make funding contingent on the implementation of a ‘widening access agreement’ entered into with the Funding Council. Such agreements will encourage increased participation by members of disadvantaged groups whose participation in higher education is ‘disproportionately low’.

Finally, the Bill sets a formal fee cap for students from the non-Scottish parts of the United Kingdom. This cap is not to exceed ‘the maximum amount of fees which that person would by virtue of any enactment be liable to pay if attending any higher education course provided elsewhere in the United Kingdom during that year.’ This applies to United Kingdom students only; there is no cap for non-EU students. Scottish and EU students do not pay tuition fees.

Universities Scotland – the umbrella body for the university sector – has come forward with a cautious welcome for the provisions, saying that ‘the Bill’s broad principles align with university values but that the detail of the provisions will require careful consideration’. In the political arena there has been a less positive response from opposition parties, with some politicians talking about a ‘power grab’ by the government.

On the whole I would regard these provisions as sensible. If we are to have a framework of good governance, it is reasonable to suggest that adherence to this should be a condition of public funding. Equally, the need to pursue greater participation in higher education by the disadvantaged is important, not least because the story so far is far from perfect; though equally it has to be remembered that the problem is rooted in a wider setting than just higher education.

It is hard to see these provisions as an attack on autonomy; they are in essence part of a strategy of tying public funding to good practice.

The West

October 14, 2012

Last month, for about three days I visited the West of Scotland, and stayed on the shore of Loch Torridon. What you can see here is part of the very scenic coastal village of Plockton.

Plockton

These castle walls

September 30, 2012

I recently took two days off and spent them driving around the west of Scotland. On the coast, and near the island of Skye, is the castle of Eilean Donan. It is sometimes described as Scotland’s most photographed building, and it features in recent TV advertisements for Scottish tourism. Although it looks rather ancient, it is in fact a reconstruction carried out in the early 20th century; before that it had been in ruins for some considerable time, and not much of the original building had remained. You can read more about it here.

Since it has been photographed so much, I thought I might add one more picture. Here it is.

Eilean Donan

Eilean Donan

Governing universities

February 1, 2012

Last summer the Scottish government commissioned me to chair a review of higher education governance in Scotland. Having invited and received submissions from the public, and having taken evidence from a number of people and organisations, we submitted our report, with its list of  33 recommendations, to the Scottish government last month.

Today the report was presented to the Scottish Parliament by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP. In his speech he expressed strong support for the recommendations contained in it. Many of these recommendations are likely to be accepted by those affected, but a small number may be seen as rather radical and controversial, including the recommendation that the chairs of governing bodies should be elected. There will be further consultation on these.

But perhaps the most important aspect of our report, at least in my view, is the contrast between the model of higher education that we put forward and that which has come into being south of the border. We recommend that higher education should be seen as something deserving sustained public interest, requiring accountability and public confidence in order to succeed. We believe that Scottish universities are, and should remain, highly successful, but also that they should be part of an academic culture of critical intellectual curiosity. The detailed recommendations in our report are designed to express that culture.

Television and nation building

October 18, 2011

Travelling between Ireland and Scotland recently. I was struck by one aspect of Irish life that may not, or at least not yet, be part of the Scottish experience in the same way: there is a shared conversation that accompanies Irish national life and that reaches into the community; and its fuel is television. Apart from the ongoing soul searching about the recession, national insolvency and the attempted economic comeback, the national conversation involves analysis of the current presidential campaign. This is not because the campaign has caught the public imagination; if anything, the conversation is often about how the candidates fall short. But the campaign is being fought over the airwaves, and the various live debates have been a major talking point. It helps that one or two candidates seem to be self-destructing in public, but generally the coming election is a shared experience of the national community, made possible because it is being broadcast to the country as it unfolds.

In fact, the shared experience of television is part of Ireland’s recent history. Almost everyone has some reference point, whether that is the iconic Late Late Show, or the political magazine programmes over the years such as Today Tonight and Prime Time, special series such as that on Charles Haughey, or just the Nine O’Clock news. Even as hundreds of channels became available through cable or satellite, the main national channels (and RTÉ in particular) stayed there as the focus of national conversation. This shaped the country’s identity: who can deny that Gay Byrne’s Late Late made modern Ireland what it is much more than any politician’s manifesto?

Over here in what is now my home in Scotland there is also something of a national conversation, but it is not securely anchored in the same way. Interestingly the key topic of that conversation is nation building, in the setting of the anticipated referendum on independence. But even as this topic is developed, it lacks the compelling support of national broadcasting, lacking in part because the broadcast media are part of a wider United Kingdom heritage. The BBC has a good bit of Scotland-specific programming, but is interspersed between the dominant shared British output. The same is true of STV, which is still on the whole the Scottish arm of the UK’s ITV. The iconic programmes are mostly British. Of course the national debate about Scotland’s future gets along fine anyway, but I do miss the immediate and compelling nature of the  national conversation I am used to in Ireland. I suspect that Scotland needs this also to secure its identity. Perhaps the time has come to consider a genuinely Scottish television station, to share the airwaves with the undoubtedly excellent BBC and other broadcasters.

The Scottish dimension

October 15, 2011

It is still too early to say whether the people of Scotland will, in the referendum promised for the term of the current Holyrood parliament, vote for independence. It will of course depend on exactly what question they will be asked. But right now the signs are that the vote will be in favour: the news today is that, for the first time, an opinion poll has found a decisive shift in favour of an independent Scotland, and moreover there is now a slim majority in the UK as a whole for this proposition.

As a newer resident of Scotland, I am still learning about the country and its history and its ethos and its traditions. But I believe I have come to understand what for me are some important considerations. First, the noises from some sources south of the Border are missing the point. There is a lot of chatter from some political and media voices in England about the economics of separation, and the ability or otherwise of Scotland to manage its own affairs. This is annoying many in Scotland not least because of its patronising nature, but also because the key driver of Scotland’s search for a new status is not really about economics, but about values. The Scottish sense of community, whether it is better or worse than that in England, is at any rate different. This has become particularly clear to me in the debate about tuition fees, which is actually a debate here about a higher education ethos at least as much as it is one about funding.

Secondly, Scotland has a very different cultural and social identity from England, and there is a growing sense of confidence that the time is right to express this constitutionally.

But thirdly – and maybe crucially – I detect a sense that Scottish independence can be achieved without any hostility towards England. People I knew who lived in Scotland a couple of decades ago found little taste for independence but often quite visible antagonism towards English people. That has mostly gone, and has been replaced by a sense that the two nations can co-exist in a friendly manner but with each controlling their own destiny, to the extent that this is possible in today’s globalised world. The fear of independence has gone, and with it the sense of insecurity that may have accompanied it.

Of course independence should not be assessed sentimentally, it has to be evaluated in a sober way. But the backdrop to this assessment has changed. And that makes it a very interesting time to be in Scotland.