Leader: Political meddling bad for universities’ health
UNIVERSITIES are important institutions in Scotland’s civic landscape. Their significance to research and pushing the frontiers of human knowledge was dramatically underlined last week when scientists validated the particle physics theory developed by Professor Peter Higgs of Edinburgh University.
Of course universities can do better still. But it is questionable whether the outcome agreements proposed by the Scottish Funding Council are the right way to encourage improvements. As part of their funding settlement for 2012-13, and to close the gap with universities south of the Border able to charge tuition fees for all their students, Scottish institutions were given just over £1 billion. But the funding council has made it clear that it expects to get something in return.
The council wants universities to do more to get more students from disadvantaged backgrounds studying and to improve the employability of their graduates. The first goal is hard to achieve. Research has shown that the main determinant of school-leavers’ willingness to go to university and their chances of succeeding are their home and school backgrounds. Universities can have influence over this by working closely with schools, but it has only a marginal effect.
The second is an area where universities can have greater effects. Employers are consistently surprised that too many graduates are less than competent at basic skills such as spelling and adding up. Quite a few also lack the “softer skills” of being able to co-operate with others, being able to do presentations and to negotiate in meetings. Since many universities often point to the proportion of their graduates in employment, doing more to increase these percentages is not an unreasonable request.
The way incentives and penalties to encourage universities to achieve these goals are being introduced are, however, attracting complaints from universities. Is it right to define some as regional – only educating students from a localised geographical area – and some as international? Such a designation conflicts with the way universities have to manage their finances. The system encourages them to attract high proportions of overseas students who can be charged fees. But the funding council’s suggestion that some universities, because they are classed as regional, will be penalised for that is puzzling.
Behind these outcome agreements is a suspicion that they are being used as a centralising mechanism to permit greater political control. Doubtless education secretary Michael Russell will deny that. But his overall agenda, including elections of university court chairs and the insertion of trade union representatives on to them, has already raised concerns from principals that university independence is being eroded. The long-term health of universities is critical for Scotland. That should not be endangered for the sake of short-term political goals.
No shame to lose to tennis master
No-one, watching Andy Murray’s tearful interview as he paid tribute to the powers of Roger Federer, winner of this year’s men’s Wimbledon championship, could doubt the boy from Dunblane had put his all into the final and was bitterly disappointed to lose. And there is absolutely no shame in losing to one of the game’s greats who, after a dismal couple of years, proved that he is better than ever.
Mr Federer’s record is astounding. He has now equalled the feat of Pete Sampras in winning seven Wimbledon titles and not many would bet that he cannot become the all-time record Wimbledon winner. He is, after all, already way ahead of the rest of the field in having won 17 grand slam titles, four more than anyone else.
Mr Murray gave him a real contest yesterday, breaking the great man’s serve in the first game and winning the first set. He continued to press and test, showing aggression which perhaps he has lacked in previous finals.
But, perhaps making better use of the enforced break for rain, Mr Federer, with a remarkable display of physique for a 30 year-old, slowed the game down to give him greater room to use his skills and proved why he is still a great champion.
In accepting defeat, Mr Murray understandably struggled with his emotions but remained dignified, which surely must have silenced those misplaced criticisms of his allegedly dour demeanour attitude. His own achievements remain remarkable. He is the first British tennis player to reach four grand slam finals since Fred Perry in the 1930s.
The sport, the people of Dunblane, Scotland and all Britain, should be proud of him as they surely will be prouder still when he wins his first major title.
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Saturday 18 May 2013
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