A FEW WEEKS AGO I had the privilege of being the guest speaker at a higher education event in Stirling University which was attended, amongst others, by the secretaries of our nineteen higher education institutions. You will not hear about these men and women in the media in the same way that you will hear about university principals or student leaders but they are extremely important individuals because of their knowledge and experience about the demands made upon a modern university.
In the same way that Westminster recently debated the key question about what a modern university is for, these men and women are at the cutting edge of their institutions’ strategy as they try to balance the increasing social and economic demands of government with maintaining and enhancing Scotland’s strong tradition of academic excellence across the sector.
This is the age when the pressures on universities are intense and not just because of the financial constraints under which they operate. It is also the age when the percentage share of private sector funding which supports our universities is increasing and the percentage share of public money is decreasing. As such, the balance within the lines of accountability are changing.
All of this might seem academic but it matters, a lot.
In Scotland, the SNP Government has been intent on placing additional demands on universities in terms of social and economic policy. We have seen attempts by ministers to provide much more direction when it comes to universities promoting economic and industrial strategy which is why we saw an attempt to merge the Scottish Funding Council, Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Skills Development Scotland – something that was defeated in the Scottish Parliament.
In social policy, it has been mainly all about widening access and the direction the Scottish Government has given to all nineteen higher education institutions that they must, by 2030, ensure that 20 per cent of their student intake comes from the most deprived communities.
Widening access sounds very attractive across the political spectrum but, as the Scottish Government is finding out, it is fraught with problems – problems that could undermine rather than solve the issues about inequality and fair access to tertiary education.
In his recent report about Fair Access, Professor Sir Peter Scott flags up the central problem about widening access within the current funding structures; “The fixed cap”, he says. “inevitably raises concerns that the drive to recruit more students from an SIMD20 background may reduce opportunities for other students.” This point was also flagged up by Audit Scotland.
In other words, unless university places increase, there will, by definition, be displacement of some of the other students from more traditional university backgrounds. The vast majority of these students will be well qualified and will have obtained a better clutch of grades at school than some of those who will gain contextualised entry via the widening access policy. It is not hard to imagine the reaction amongst these students, their parents and their teachers. And quite right too. We would move from a system which, undoubtedly, discriminates in some ways against poorer students to one which discriminates against better off students.
To address this, there has to be a wider debate about university entrance and university funding and this takes us back to the key question about what a modern university is for. That debate is not just about how our universities maintain their traditional role of being the custodians of academic knowledge and research but how far they should be agents of government economic and social policy.
Professor Sir Peter Scott says that universities should be challenging themselves about how they measure success and academic excellence. He says that, until now, these have been skewed towards the intellectual endeavours of the traditional university student (and perhaps their lecturers). He is hinting that maybe these measures should change.
In the first instance – regarding measures of success – I think the universities, the Scottish Funding Council and the Scottish Government are likely to reach agreement since it is not difficult to find common purpose on improving the numbers of undergraduate leavers going on to obtain good quality graduate jobs, or universities achieving better retention rates or increased numbers of SIMD20 students attending their institution. In the second case however – regarding academic excellence – I think there will be much less consensus. Indeed, I think this will stimulate a very lively, and probably controversial debate.
Academic excellence is the foundation on which success is built. It has been the hallmark of the university system in Scotland for many centuries and it is by far the most important reason why students and staff want to come to our institutions. That academic excellence did not come about because of government but because of the autonomy of our institutions, and the Scottish Government knows to its cost what happens when that autonomy is threatened, as was the case in 2012 when the Scottish Government tried its hardest to tamper with university governance. When it comes to the widening access policy, the necessary balance between autonomy and accountability for public funding of our universities will be very hard to achieve, especially if we are to respect the unique character of each institution.
Of course if we really want to widen access we need far more emphasis on our schools, on ensuring that we raise attainment and aspiration for all our pupils but most especially amongst our most disadvantaged communities. We should be looking at and adopting clear examples of success such as we have seen in Glasgow City Council in terms of raising attainment, the schools link programme within Glasgow Caledonian University and various successful literacy programmes across different local authorities.
But there is another point here – something that the Education Committee members were told when we visited the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in January. The Principal, Jeffrey Sharkey, asked, quite rightly, how the Conservatoire could be expected to meet its objectives to widen access when the school provision of music classes and the performing arts across Scotland has been declining across many areas. He pointed to local authority cuts to music tuition and the problems in finding music teachers. It is an important point since we cannot hope to inspire our young people to take up a university place if they do not have a teacher or the relevant tuition in their school.
And on the same point, there is a significant issue about the availability of Highers and Advance Higher courses in communities which have a larger incidence of SIMD20 pupils – something which inevitably holds back the achievement and probably the aspirations of pupils who face the greatest challenges. This not a matter that colleges and universities can be expected to sort. It is a matter for schools.
The Minister for Higher Education has stated unequivocally that the widening access policy is designed to replace the current unfair university access system with one that is fair. It is a laudable aim but, unless she is careful about how she implements widening access, and what should underpin it in our schools, she will be creating even more problems than exist just now.
Elizabeth Smith is a Conservative & Unionist MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife and the Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education.