Posted tagged ‘Universities Scotland’

University access for the disadvantaged

April 5, 2011

Just as English universities prepare to charge high tuition fees and consequently deal with the new Office for Fair Access (OFFA), statistics for Scotland have shown that, notwithstanding the absence of tuition fees, Scottish universities admit fewer students from socio-economically deprived groups than their English counterparts. According to a report in the Herald newspaper, just over 25 per cent of  students studying in Scotland come from lower socio-economic groups, compared with 30 per cent in the UK as a whole. There are complex issues at stake, and statements made by Universities Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council have pointed out some of them. But the fact remains that the position in Scotland is not satisfactory.

One of the problems with publicly funded higher education that is free to students is that it limits the resources that could be spent on programmes to support disadvantaged students. Free higher education leads to a large investment in the education of comparatively wealthy people, and relatively few additional resources to target disadvantage, particularly in schools. As resources become scarce this effect is aggravated. The experience in Ireland has also been that the abolition of tuition fees has not produced a noticeable benefit for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, whose participation levels have not particularly improved since fees were removed over 15 years ago.

Those who have voiced dissatisfaction with these figures are right to do so. But the solution will only lie in increased and targeted financial support. Most of that will need to be provided by the taxpayer, with some room for funds built up from philanthropy.  The issue requires urgent attention.

… 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.

Universities: what is the Scottish solution?

November 29, 2010

For understandable reasons, a lot of attention over recent weeks has focused on the future funding framework for English universities in the light of the publication of Lord Browne’s report. This report does not apply to Scotland, and as we have also noted here, the Scottish government plans to retain a system of ‘free’ higher education without tuition fees. But it also recognises that there is a serious funding problem, and it has invited suggestion for a ‘Scottish solution’ that will ensure its universities remain viable.

At a recent graduation ceremony the Principal of Abertay University in Dundee, Professor Bernard King (who is also Convener of Universities Scotland), has warned about the risks facing Scottish higher education in the light of budget cuts, and has said that a clear picture of how universities are to be adequately funded is now needed urgently. The Scottish government is planning to publish a Green Paper on the topic shortly. In the absence of tuition fees, but with the likelihood of funding cuts continuing over the next few years, Scottish universities will have to find ways of targeting additional revenue streams and may be driven away from traditional core activities in doing so. Right now they are at risk of being seen as having lower capacity for quality than English universities. Certainly whatever is to be done needs to be agreed quickly.

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.


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