Letter: Students must be encouraged, not deterred

Michael Fry's approach (Perspective, 6 November) to the funding crisis in Scotland's universities confuses as much as it clarifies and presents contentious arguments as established common sense.

He is right both that the idea of free higher education belongs to the era of the welfare state not the tradition of the "democratic intellect" (though the latter involved only minimal payments linked to serious bursaries).

But he is wrong to say that the "Scottish universities… want to charge their students" and that a "consensus in favour of a Scottish graduate tax seems to be building". Universities Scotland, the principals' organisation whose director he quotes, favours making students pay, but us is not "the universities".

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The people who really make the universities what they are, creating the often-celebrated "excellence", are teachers and researchers, and the teams of academic-related and support colleagues who work with them. There is little evidence that many of them would like their relations with their students transformed by the cash nexus.

Fry's column misses the main point. Universities Scotland is trying to pre-empt democratic discussion by giving the false impression of a "consensus" for graduate payments and by reducing the question to one of who will pay what and how. Much more significant issues are at stake.

Is higher education to be a marketable commodity judged by "consumer satisfaction" (contrary to the values of both Scotland's "democratic intellect" and the welfare state)? Or is it to be developed as a public, cultural and socio-economic good, substantially publicly funded?

Lord Browne in England has predictably come out for the former, and many Scottish principals and their senior managers appear to regard their institutions as part of the same system of universities as competing corporations that Browne envisions. But the Scottish people have the opportunity to take a decisively different route. And they have the incentive to do so, particularly in the current crisis.

Scotland's universities - in a post-industrial world brought to its present plight by the banks that were supposed to be the nation's economic saviour - are one of the country's few, enduring and potentially reinvigorating success stories.

Deterring potential students on whose acquired skills, especially their critical analytical and discursive skills, Scotland's future now substantially depends would be neither democratic nor intellectually sensible.

It would be helpful if commentators tried to offer a more complete presentation of these broader issues.


Former president, University and College Union Scotland, Dundas Street, Edinburgh