Christine Jardine: To be the best needs support
UNIVERSITY funding needs to change if we want Scottish institutions to top the global rankings and our students to get the best education they can, writes Christine Jardine
We ARE spending a lot of time talking about universities in our house at the moment. Not the politics of funding, tuition fees, graduate tax or even the good old days when Dad and I got grants to study. No, what we’ve talked about recently is where our teenage daughter thinks she can win a place that offers her the best opportunity for her future.
Increasingly it looks as if she might be leaving Scotland. Not because she is desperate to escape, or because there aren’t Scottish universities that offer what she wants to learn or because we are not acutely aware of the expense involved in studying outside Scotland. The focus of concern is which universities will offer her the best springboard for her future.
But even focusing on this, there is no avoiding the politics of funding and whether the current financial regime is capable of supporting a higher education system which attains the same high standards it has in the past.
Long before Conservative UK universities minister David Willetts questioned the sustainability of free tuition in Scotland, the question I wanted answered was this: “How are our universities going to compete if they can’t rely on the same level of funding as those elsewhere?”
Unfortunately, according to the most recent Times Higher Education world university ranking survey of the world’s top 200 institutions, the answer is that they can’t.
All of our major Scottish universities except Edinburgh have slipped back in the table. The UK is still the second most represented country in the world’s top tier – the United States is top – but that position is not as secure as it used to be. Our competitors abroad, particularly in Asia, are pumping investment into research-intensive subjects to move up the rankings.
Ambitious, talented teenagers want a degree from a world-class institution to further their careers. As Scottish universities slip back, looking south of the Border becomes increasingly attractive. True, some English universities have also suffered but there are still more options there than here which offer a qualification regarded as among the best in the world.
And the notion that going to an English university could be expensive is apparently less discouraging than many of us thought. Our daughter, after looking into the details of the current fee arrangements and talking to other Scots who have gone south to study, is not concerned about having to pay back her fees. She would, she tells me, rather have the debt and a degree from the best university she can get into, wherever that is, than stay here in Scotland solely to avoid fees. And she is not alone among her friends in thinking that way.
For me that is a difficult concept to embrace. As one of a generation of graduates who were the first from their working-class families to go to university, I cherish the principle of higher education free at the point of delivery. When tuition fees were first introduced in Scotland, I argued that my generation had welched on a deal which provided us with a free education in return for meeting the costs for future generations. The decision to scrap the fees was one I welcomed.
But what I see happening now worries me. Universities are judged across the world on their research record. To get into the top 100, their record has to be good and they have to be able to fund that research. That is looking like an increasingly difficult challenge.
If our universities slip down world rankings, they will no longer be able to attract the numbers of high-fee-paying, non-European Union students who are vital to the institutions’ financial well-being. The competition for those students is increasing as the growth of higher education in places such as South Korea and China is boosted by billions of pounds of investment.
If Scotland’s universities also then lose the country’s own brightest talents to more successful competitors south of the Border and elsewhere, that would not only damage our universities but in the long term also damage our economy.
Until recently, with the establishment of UHI, the Highlands and Islands had no university and the impact on its economy was clear. For generations those of its young people who wanted to go on to higher education were forced to leave. Once they had gone, their careers tended to keep them away, often until they retired.
As recently as 2009, a survey for Highlands and Islands Enterprise cited previous lack of higher education opportunities as a major factor in hindering the growth of the area’s economy. The establishment of the University of the Highlands and Islands has been key to the strategy of reversing that trend.
But if we are not careful we could create the same problem across the rest of Scotland. Recently, in response to those disappointing world ranking results, Education Secretary Mike Russell defended the current situation, saying that this year “more students will be studying at our world-class institutions”. It seems that in his view, everything is fine. But that patently isn’t the case and simply asserting that our universities are world class will not make them so.
Increasingly, opposition politicians in Scotland are questioning universal benefits such as free tuition fees. Educationalists are warning that our universities are short of funding. Students I speak to tell me they know of peers having to fund their own research because their universities could not support it.
Perhaps it is time to think the unthinkable and look again at how we fund higher education. Even those of us committed to the idea of higher education being free at the point of delivery are beginning to have doubts. But that is not to say that we should leap to a system of up-front tuition fees, loans and a return to the 1990s.
As a Liberal Democrat, I am acutely aware of the sensitivity of the issue of tuition fees in England. But the controversy over the past two years has obscured some of the benefits of the system as it stands south of the Border: students pay nothing up front, nor until they reach a specified earnings threshold, and the universities are able to look for realistic levels of finance.
Since the changes, the National Union of Students has also moderated its opposition, saying that the new set-up works better for students than the regime under the previous government.
However, fees are also not the only option. A graduate tax would allow those who go on to highly lucrative careers to pay back what was invested in them and take us back to something approaching the situation where those of us who benefitted felt that we were passing some of that on.
Surely we have come to the point where our politicians should put aside point-scoring over who is offering the cheapest alternative for student funding and look instead at what might be the best alternative?
Education is something that Scots have always prized, almost above all else. Oxford and Cambridge, which still hold their positions in the world’s top ten, were the first universities in the UK. But long before England had a third university, Scotland created four institutions whose names were respected across the globe – | St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh.
They have all held on to their places in the world’s top 200 for the moment. Surely our politicians at Holyrood will not put off finding a way to support their future success until it is too late?
• Christine Jardine is a former Liberal Democrat special adviser to the UK government
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