Leaders: University balancing act needs to be maintained | The legacy of the Murdochs
WHEN Scotland and the rest of the UK went their separate ways on student tuition fees, the Scottish government and our university administrators faced huge challenges.
How should university places for Scottish students be ring-fenced? And what level of fees for non-Scottish students would strike the right balance? Too low, and our universities would be swamped with applications from outside the country and at a level of income that would make it difficult for courses and standards to remain competitive with their English counterparts; too high, and there would be a slump in applications. Moreover, this balancing act had to be made against the most troubling and uncertain economic outlook for a generation.
In the event, it appears the government has called it correctly and our universities have struck an appropriate balance in fees – for now. Scotland’s universities have experienced a sharp rise in the numbers of English and Welsh students accepting places in the wake of higher fees set south of the Border. Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show that, by not following the example of many leading English universities in charging the maximum £9,000 a year, most Scottish institutions have managed to minimise the fall in applications from Scottish students while providing a highly competitive alternative for many English ones.
The take-up of university places in England has fallen by 8 per cent, reflecting price resistance among applicants and continuing pressures on household budgets. But applications from English students for a place at Scottish universities jumped by 26.3 per cent. The fall in the number of Scottish students accepting university places was limited to just 0.2 per cent.
For the moment, our universities are thus enjoying a three-way win. Higher fees should enable them to offer courses of comparable quality to their English counterparts. There has only been a fractional impact on demand from Scottish students. And, thirdly, our universities continue to benefit by their ability to attract students from England and Wales. This ensures a diversity of experience and culture across the campuses, and economic benefit for the wider community. In due course, a proportion of students from beyond the Border may find employment and settle permanently here.
However, this is not a balance that can be taken for granted. It needs to be constantly reviewed in the light of changing circumstances. Critical for the future success of our universities is the maintenance of reputation. Courses must be competitive in terms of quality of teaching and tuition. At the same time, there is little prospect of an economic upturn that would ease the pressure on household budgets. However, it is encouraging when Scotland gets the balance right, and offers the hope that this success can be built on in the future.
The legacy of the Murdochs
PREVIOUS lectures from the Murdochs on threats to press freedom have been outspoken to the point of arresting. Few will have forgotten James Murdoch’s attack three years ago on the BBC licence fee and his argument that it is profit that is the best guarantor of a free press. His sister, Elisabeth, now offers a defence of public broadcasting, reveals that she is a supporter of the BBC licence fee and offers a more nuanced argument than her brother. What James should have added, she says, is that “profit without a purpose is a recipe for disaster”.
But it is a bit rich for Ms Murdoch to assert that it is the “unsettling dearth of integrity across so many of our institutions” that has led to the threat to press freedom posed by greater regulation following the Leveson Inquiry. The only institution that has taken us down that road is the company with which she is intimately related – News International, and the practices it used. Indeed, in the eyes of many it has been the behaviour of this one organisation that has presented the opponents of press freedom with a potent and possibly lethal weapon.
A new machinery of press regulation is now being formed. The hope is that this does not operate to become a barrier to the disclosure of material in the public interest, whether it is expenses abuse by politicians or financial irregularities by bankers.
There will always be debate on what is, and what is not, an acceptable intrusion of individual privacy, as the furore over photo-graphs of Prince Harry testifies. But there can be no mistaking the depth of the offence caused by excessive intrusion in recent years, the legality of which is now at the centre of legal proceedings. And it is law that is the best guarantor of press freedom.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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