Alexander McCall Smith: Universities in Scotland must reflect on their true purpose

Universities operate a business model in which income is too heavily dependent on fees from overseas students, writes Alexander McCall Smith.

Students from Edinburgh University celebrate after a graduation ceremony at the McEwan Hall (Picture: David Cheskin/PA)
Students from Edinburgh University celebrate after a graduation ceremony at the McEwan Hall (Picture: David Cheskin/PA)

Our universities, we are told, are in peril. Edinburgh University, one of the great universities of the world, is facing a gaping hole in its finances, and has put its staff on notice of severe cut-backs ahead. Other Scottish universities are in much the same boat, and amongst the options being talked about are mergers of institutions. Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, the picture is the same and universities that, until recently, were confidently expanding are now wondering whether they will survive the next couple of years. Universities are accustomed to periods of tightened funding, but this is of a completely different order of magnitude from anything experienced before.

Nobody can take any pleasure in the difficulties that universities face. In Scotland we have always been proud of our universities – and with good reason. Scottish universities have long enjoyed a significant reputation in a wide range of areas, from philosophy and economics to medicine and engineering. This reputation was built on the stressing of education that has been a marked feature of Scotland’s public life since the Reformation. The idea of the lad o’pairts who gets himself a sound education and does well in life is part of the nation’s sense of itself. Deeply engrained in that was a strong democratic attachment to the idea that money and position should not determine who gets an education. Our universities have always been thought to be there to serve the nation. That’s what people believe they are for; that’s why people are prepared to pay tax to fund them.

Something has gone wrong and it has taken the current pandemic to reveal a troublesome problem at the heart of our university system. How we reached this point in the road is a complex story, but what we are now seeing is a consequence of a model of university education that favoured the creation of larger and larger institutions designed not only to educate the young people of Scotland, but also to educate a substantial number of students from abroad. Even if it is not quite clear yet how many applicants will drop out, that supply of overseas students could now be significantly diminished and the fee income they brought with them correspondingly reduced. In many cases, the universities have made appointments and spent money on expensive capital projects on the assumption that overseas fee income will not only continue, but grow.

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This immediate funding crisis should make us consider some very fundamental questions as to the role of the universities and, in particular, question whether it has been wise to allow our universities to become dependent on foreign countries, and on one country in particular. Do Scottish universities exist in order to educate students from elsewhere?

The question is easily asked, but is immensely difficult to answer. Western universities, of course, have always been international in their outlook – and in the composition of their student body. The Italian universities from the 13th century onwards were thronged by students from all over Europe, and indeed, many Scottish students went there and to universities in the Netherlands and Germany. Scottish universities themselves educated many people from all over the world, particularly in fields such as medicine. This carried on, and was a great glory of our system. I remember, years ago, being wheeled into an operating theatre in Malaysia (having swallowed a fish bone) – and being told, as I was prepared for the anaesthetic: “Don’t worry, we’re all Edinburgh-trained!”

Internationalism and university education go together. If a university closes itself off from the rest of the world, it is not being worthy of the name. Scholarship is indifferent to national boundaries – and rightly so. And yet if a university becomes too focused on the needs of other countries, then there is an obvious danger that it will cease to do its basic job, which is to educate those from the country in which it finds itself. The first and foremost obligation of a Scottish university is to the people of Scotland. That does not preclude an international profile and groundbreaking research; it does not entail parochialism of outlook; what it does mean is that universities should not lose sight of the needs and the claims of Scotland’s own young people. Concentrating on overseas students, who pay inflated fees, could lead to putting local students down the list of priorities. In crude terms, that means offering places to those who bring in money rather than to those who do not. That, surely, is questionable. Of course, the argument can be made that getting all those fees enables the universities to punch above the country’s weight – a strong argument, but not necessarily one that clinches the matter. The Scottish school leaver is still entitled to ask: what about us? Making education free for Scottish students requires a cap on the number of places, but that means that there are Scottish students who will not be admitted while fee-paying students continue to be welcome.

Another unfortunate consequence of the stressing of overseas student fees is that standards are threatened if you become too commercially driven. The temptation then is for faculties to cram in as many fee-paying students as possible. Masters’ courses have been a dripping roast here: these are often designed around the needs of students from overseas and some of these courses may admit students a little bit too enthusiastically in order to secure the income they bring. What is the effect of this on standards?

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So here we are in a very uncomfortable position. We have large universities – larger than a small country like Scotland could normally sustain.

These are admirable institutions, of which we can be justly proud. They are staffed by committed, hard-working people, and they work, with distinction, on a world stage. But unfortunately, they operate a business model in which income is too heavily dependent on outside fees. With that source being called into question, we need to have a careful look at what we want our universities to do, how they can pay adequate attention to domestic needs, and how we can help them through their current difficulties.

The days of rapid expansion in the international educational market may well be over. Scottish universities can continue to be great institutions, but will need to reflect upon where they are, and what their purpose is.

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Joy Yates

Editorial Director

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