Leader: Wake-up call for our universities

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SCOTLAND has takes great pride in the strength of its higher education. We have some of the oldest universities in the world and a reputation for promoting academic excellence which, we thought, continues to this day.

The results of the Times Higher Education’s 2012 World Reputation survey, putting only one Scottish university in the top 100, shows this view is rather self-serving, perhaps even complacent.

The report says the UK is now a “fading power” in higher education. Edinburgh’s fall from 45th place to 49th and the failure of other institutions to make the top 100 suggests we are part of that worrying trend. Should we care if “super-brands”, like Harvard in the US and Cambridge in the UK, are leaving us behind, while Asian institutions flex their academic muscles?

Yes, and care deeply. Universities are vital to Scotland. They provide, or should provide, high-quality education for young people; conduct vital research, some of which can be commercialised; and attract fee-paying overseas students.

The downward trend must be reversed. Not easy, but the Scottish Government might ask whether “free” education, which constrains long-term income and “democratisation” of governance, helps universities’ efforts to regain their place in the world?