Michael Fry: Set education free of the old ways

The time to face up to the once unpalatable choice of paying for our Scottish solution is now, writes Michael Fry

We need "a uniquely Scottish solution" to the crisis in higher education, says the First Minister, and there is not on the face of it anything to disagree with in that. The Scottish universities are fairly uniform with those elsewhere in the UK.

The remaining differences are small but probably, in the estimation of most of us, worth maintaining: the close connection between the big city universities and their urban hinterland, the readier acceptance of the academic status of qualifications for accountancy, teaching and other vocational subjects.

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Above all, there is the history. The universities are among the key institutions that for three centuries have made Scotland Scotland, and not North Britain or Scotlandshire.

For a long time there were five Scottish universities, while in England there were only two. Higher education stood open to everybody who could benefit from it rather than being reserved for a social elite.

This was the democratic intellect in action, a cultural value that in the life of the mind made Scotland as different from England as Germany is from France. It formed the subject of a long and sorrowful elegy by the late George Davie, was attacked as largely a myth by RD Anderson, but in a sense the precise status of the truth does not matter.

As so often in Scotland, the myth matters more. It is the myth that Alex Salmond is obliquely evoking when he calls for a Scottish solution: we have something to treasure here, and we should do all we can to preserve it. With the Scottish Parliament we possess the means to do so.

Alas for the Scottish universities, reality in the form of the credit crunch and its consequences for public spending is about to knock them for six.

Salmond may rush to the scene with stretcher and drip, but we should not forget that he is in part to blame for reducing the universities to this dependence. Academic budgets could only come from the state: fine while the state was throwing money about in Gordon Brown's boom but threatening disaster now the party is over.

However the Scottish solution might look, it will not be a continuation of the present system. But it is anyway wrong to claim there is anything uniquely Scottish about free higher education. That was in fact a product of unionism in the system, dating only from the period after 1945 when the Scots universities were brought, not altogether willingly, to serve the purposes of the British welfare state.

Before that higher education had not been in principle free, though it had been cheap. Bursaries were available for those really unable to pay, while the munificence of the Carnegie Foundation let the universities compete on an intellectual and especially a scientific level with the best in the world. Up to 1945 Scots won eight Nobel prizes, more per head of population than any other country. Since 1945 Scots have won two.

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The old system remained cheap because, even while attracting generous charitable donations, it was run on a shoestring. The professors could only make a reasonable living from the extra fees they charged their students to come to their lectures, so they had an incentive to make the experience relevant and interesting. However, the fees were low too and the numbers attracted had to be large.

This was not a formula for the individual intellectual development that is the product of the tutorial system. But it did by all accounts make lectures lively to the point of being riotous, as young Scots competed en masse in the development of their faculties. Here was the essence of what marked the Scottish trained mind out from any other: the democratic intellect indeed.

It was certainly a system more democratic than in most other countries, in England especially, yet it has come under criticism for not being democratic enough. Perhaps students tried all the more if their parents had to make sacrifices to put them through college, but the fact remained that the Scottish working class was under-represented in the universities.

The need for students (or their parents) to pay good money for the privilege no doubt made them work harder and the old system work better. At any rate, a new system of free higher education has not obviously given us more industrious students or more impressive results. Nor indeed has it produced a better rate of working-class participation in higher education, which remains about the same today as it was half a century ago: whatever the answer to that problem may be, it is not in the first instance a financial one.

Scotland cannot live in the past but this historical experience may give us pointers now that one particular scheme of higher education, free at the point of use, has come to the end of the road.

The Scottish universities are in any event making their wishes clear: they want to charge their students in some form. They had taken this view right from the time tuition fees were abolished in Scotland, and the credit crunch has made it imperative.

At the same time, they see before their eyes the comparative experience in England where tuition fees have continued to be charged. Nobody would claim English universities are problem-free, but at least they do not face the desperate situation in which Scottish universities may soon find themselves.

The chorus has swelled since Secretary for Education Mike Russell announced a consultation about what is to be done, not with any particular result in view but not ruling out the end of free higher education either.

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He met an immediate response from Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, who let the cat out of the bag by saying a new system of graduate contributions is required.

A consensus in favour of a Scottish graduate tax seems to be building, despite the problems of collecting it. Still, the real difficulty for the period ahead may not lie in the coherence and viability of such a tax, but in the prospective appearance of another superior English example.

After the recent report from Lord Browne, the most likely prospect in England is for the present cap on fees to be lifted and for universities to charge what they like. Again following the US, England is likely to develop a system of higher education consisting of several tiers and charging at different rates: universities of international reputation, specialist universities, vocational universities, big city universities catering for a wide social range, small liberal arts colleges. I would also predict that this English system, like the American system, will be a success.

As such it will present a constant challenge to whatever happens in the Scottish system, which does not seem to me so sure of success. Because we are forcing ourselves to accept only with the greatest reluctance that the beneficiaries of higher education ought in some way to pay for it, our reforms seem likely to turn out half-baked.

There will need to be huge adjustments, but the universities would gain the bonus of freedom from the state and vagaries of public policy. The state and public policy have not served them well, and without academic freedom there has seldom been academic excellence.

l Michael Fry is a fellow at the Max Planck Institute, Frankfurt, Germany.