Posted tagged ‘SNP’

Scotland’s choice

May 16, 2011

It has certainly been an interesting time to move to Aberdeen. As something of a political junkie I have over the years – but always from a distance – followed developments in Scotland. In the 1980s when England was pretty solidly Conservative Scotland stood out, and the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) was intriguing. My own political education really took place in my late teens in Germany, when Willy Brandt and then Helmut Schmidt defined the new social democracy. In Ireland it was always slightly difficult to find a political perspective based on political principle, but I got used to it and became at home there. So now, what to make of Scotland?

I arrived in Aberdeen just as the election campaign for the Scottish parliament was getting properly under way. I was able to register to vote in time, and so I needed to ensure that I had understood the issues and the extent to which the parties could deliver on their promises. The impression I got early on was that Scotland will need to be able to make some important political and economic choices, which will in particular secure a highly educated and skilled population and knowledge intensive investment. English people sometimes assume that Scotland has a higher reliance than England on public sector employment, which is not actually true: several regions in England are more public sector reliant than Scotland. But it is true that the future here must involve more entrepreneurial initiative and the promotion of new technology and life science industries. Also, Scotland seems to me to focus its priorities far too much on the ‘Central Belt‘, the area dominated by Glasgow and Edinburgh. There is a major need to ensure that development is more appropriately spread across the regions.

In higher education, the key issue may not actually be funding (though of course it is highly important), but the extent to which universities become more directly engaged with an agenda for political, social and economic renewal. The degree of interaction between universities, government development agencies and industry is not yet at the level it has reached in Ireland, and this too will be important for the country’s future.

I watched the various public debates between the party leaders, and on the basis of these debates, the manifestos of the parties, and their record in government and opposition, I felt I was able to make an informed choice. I will say only that the election outcome did not surprise me.

With the SNP’s overall majority now comes a much greater interest, both inside and outside Scotland, in the question of independence, or perhaps the level of autonomy that may be achieved short of independence. Politicians on both sides of the border and media pundits are lining up to have a go. One theme that seems to unite readers of the Daily Telegraph and usually progressive commentators such as writer Tim Lott (in the Independent) is the assumption or assertion that Scotland is bankrolled by the English taxpayer and that independence would see the country facing financial crisis or even ruin. Still, Scottish people may assume that the country’s oil has bankrolled the English taxpayer, but no matter. And in the meantime, some in the media are predicting that the actual model to be pursued by the SNP government will be ‘independence lite’, or a form of enhanced autonomy that won’t involve a complete break with the UK. And indeed there is a poll that suggests that more English people than Scots favour Scottish independence.

What do I think? I’m new here, but I have now spoken with a fairly large number of Scottish voters, and I am getting a very consistent message, so consistent that I am going to discard the normal caution of suggesting that this really isn’t a sufficient sample to be useful. Almost everyone I have spoken to who voted SNP has said the same. And to explain it, I might refer to the remark by a BBC commentator on election night, who suggested that the Scots had ‘lost their fear of independence’. That seems to me to get it absolutely right. It doesn’t mean they voted for it when they voted SNP. But it means that they knew that, by voting SNP, they were making independence a live issue. They might still voice caution when polled. But they are there to be persuaded, and expect the persuasion to come. They are not yet all in favour, but they are no longer determined to be against.

These will be interesting times.

An Irish higher education export to Scotland?

April 9, 2011

Higher education has turned out to be one of the key issues in the Scottish election campaign that is now fully under way. Three of the four main parties have entered into pledges and commitments not to introduce tuition fees, but in consequence they are now rather struggling with the question of how the universities can be adequately funded so that they are able to compete with those in England and elsewhere. The parties accept that there is a ‘funding gap’ that needs to be bridged, but how this is to be done (or indeed how big that gap actually is) has not yet become clear.

One idea that appears to have caught the attention of the outgoing Scottish National Party (SNP) government is something taken from Ireland: the student registration charge. As readers of this blog will know, this charge has been around in Irish higher education since tuition fees were abolished in the 1990s, and its purpose originally was to provide a small student contribution to cover various non-tuition services. Over the years the charge has increased steadily, and unless the new Irish government changes things it will be €2,000 from this autumn.

The SNP, however, seems to have misunderstood the charge. Apparently they believe that it is being, or could be, charged to non-Irish EU students only. In other words, just as Scotland is proposing to make English, Welsh and Northern Ireland students pay a tuition fee not payable by Scottish students, so they would levy a registration charge payable by non-UK students from the European Union, apparently believing that such a charge, if it covers specific costs only, would not be contrary to EU law.

But of course the Irish student registration charge (now a ‘student contribution charge’) applies to all students, very much including Irish ones; and any attempt in Scotland to introduce such a charge for non-UK students only would undoubtedly violate European Union law. Charging English students is a different matter, as this does not involve discrimination against citizens of other member states and therefore falls outside the scope of EU law.

Some Scottish university principals (most recently the Principal of Dundee University) have argued that the parties are making promises on tuition fees that they cannot keep. Whether this is true or not, there are certainly signs that they are somewhat confused about university funding issues. So far Scottish universities may have been hit by funding cuts, but their position is not yet as unsustainable as that of many of their English counterparts. The current confusion and the rush to promise things without maybe fully appreciating the consequences is a worrying feature of the situation. Election campaigns often don’t help to bring some rational thought into the issues, but that is what is now urgently needed.

… And in Scotland?

February 22, 2011

In the meantime, while in England and Ireland politicians agonise over university funding and tuition fees, the issue is coming to a head in Scotland also. Universities Scotland has, according to media reports, submitted comments to the Scottish government setting out its concerns about the funding deficit that has led some universities to take emergency measures including the closing of departments and reductions in staffing. The Principal of the University of Glasgow has warned that his college will run out of cash in 2013 unless something is done. However, the SNP government has regularly repeated its commitment to free higher education, and has suggested various other ways of increasing revenues for the institutions.

A straw in the wind, however, is the tentative change in the position adopted by the Herald newspaper. Until now it has been a staunch supporter of free higher education and has argued repeatedly that this is part of Scottish culture and should not change. Yesterday for the first time it adoped a somewhat different position in its main editorial:

‘… It may be that the unthinkable must become the thinkable and we charge Scotland’s students a fee. However, this would represent a deep ideological shift in Scottish society and it must therefore be a last resort. Before we take it, we must hear from the SNP and every other party on where they stand on this issue. Free higher education is a much-valued principle in Scotland that is now under serious threat. We must know what our politicians propose to do next.’

Interestingly this editorial was published in its print edition only and is not on its website.

Those who have argued passionately for many years for free access to higher education for all, including the wealthy, will find it hard to move away from this position. But all over the industrialised world, as universities are called upon to be innovators and lead discovery for the benefit of society, governments are finding that letting them do so is more costly than taxpayers can easily afford to support by themselves. It was never likely that Scotland could stay immune from this. But it does now have a chance to tackle this much better than England has done, and that surely is an objective worth pursuing.