Michael Fry: With a £10m carrot, there’s sure to be a stick

London University chiefs met with education secretary Mike Russell. Picture: TSPL
London University chiefs met with education secretary Mike Russell. Picture: TSPL
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A GOOD number of the Scottish universities come out as excellent on any global measure, so it is a little surprising that the government of Scotland should so often have got near to striking a note of disapproval towards them: they do well, but not well enough in certain, particular ways.

There has been an example this week. It came disguised by the habitual suave charm of the secretary for education, Mike Russell.

He presented a carrot to higher education in the form of £10 million from his government for widening access – that is to say, for admitting more working-class kids to tread the hallowed halls and wander beneath the dreaming spires in order to prepare themselves for an adult life somewhere other than in their native council schemes.

When a carrot is presented by a politician, always look out for the stick. In some respects the Scottish universities are certainly not pleasing the Scottish government. Scotland has just 4 per cent of pupils going to private schools compared with 7 per cent in England.

Yet the proportion of privately educated students at Scottish universities is almost the same as the proportion at English universities, at a little under 9 per cent.

It gets worse. The proportion of students from the lower social classes at Scottish universities is less than 28 per cent. At English universities the figure is more than 31 per cent. For the nation of The Democratic Intellect this does not look good.

The figures must be all the more galling to the minister because, in public, he never ceases to count out loud the blessings of his government’s policy of free higher education for Scottish youngsters – when English students are faced with bills of £9,000 a year.

The outcome in terms of student numbers is not only galling but also puzzling. On the face of it, you would think the English policy would be bound to discriminate in favour of the rich and against the poor. Yet it is the English policy that produces more equality, the Scottish policy that produces less.

How can this be? One explanation may be that, for the Scottish people at large, the carrot of higher education is not as juicy as it used to be. When I was a teenager only about 10 per cent of my age group went to university, but since then the proportion has mounted to 50 per cent.

I think we can say that nowadays, broadly speaking, everybody who wants higher education can get it, though there will always be cases of personal difficulty or hardship that need special help – and this is best given, surely, through individual attention rather than dreaming up new public spending programmes.

There is also an old adage that people attach less value to the things they do not have to pay for (just look at your average council scheme compared with your average bourgeois suburb). Scots youngsters weighing up their chances today must wonder if higher education is really worth the time and effort, given that fees do not come into it.

They will have to spend four years not earning with no guarantee at the end of a job to match their qualifications. If they know what they want to do, why not start work now?

And then another explanation is that the stick is being misapplied. There are some donkeys you cannot beat hard enough because they simply do not see the world in the same way as their masters.

Just as donkeys may have their own wisdom, so may the Scottish universities. At present they are smarting on the right flank because they cannot solve their severe financial problems by charging higher fees to most of their students, only to those who come from England or outside the EU.

And they are smarting on the left flank because the government of Scotland has itself treated them with great severity, and cut its spending on them more than on the rest of the public sector.

Perhaps these ministers calculated that, with a largely bourgeois clientele, such institutions could afford to tighten their belts in a way that could not reasonably be asked of others genuinely serving the proletariat – for instance, in handing out doles or drugs.

Your average donkey, being beaten on both flanks, will point its snout forward and set off resolutely in the direction it wants to go. This seems to me to be the conscious or unconscious reaction to their present situation of the Scottish universities too.

None actually wishes to confine access to the posh and the rich, and I suspect most have an unsung policy to the contrary anyway. The people in our universities are, after all, not reactionary blimps but quite liberal and progressive in their own fey sort of way.

But in such hard times they have to ask themselves what is really important, individually and corporately. And, certainly, a prime aim must be to maintain the quality of their institutions at a time of ever fiercer academic competition, now not only from the rest of the British universities but also from those in America and Asia.

Otherwise, even the inadequate stream of income they do get in fees from students will dry up.

In these testing conditions it is not hard to see why the question of access comes some way down the list of priorities. In Scotland there is, after all, no concrete evidence whatsoever of universities turning away youngsters who truly want to study and are qualified to do so. The whole business may have arisen from misreading the margins of error to be found in any set of statistics. But, to every non-problem, any politician worth his salt will supply a non-solution, and I fear that is what has happened here.