In bonny Scotland, the challenges are the same and the solutions hard to see


LEFTFIELD:We can learn much from the Scottish system of higher education – and they can learn from us

I HAVE NOW taken up the post of principal (the Scottish title for university presidents) of Robert Gordon University (RGU) in Aberdeen. It is one of two universities in the Granite City, and it is already a really interesting experience for me. In some respects RGU is like DCU, but there are also significant differences. I have under my care one of Scotland’s leading art schools, for example, and a highly respected School of Architecture that has managed to buck recent trends and is still experiencing very high student demand.

Some things in Scotland seem familiar to the immigrant from Ireland.

Scottish airports greet you with a sign that reads Fàilte (admittedly with the fada the wrong way round as is the rule in Scots Gaelic). But for me perhaps the greatest sense of déja vu is prompted by the discussions around higher education. I should maybe explain first that education policy is entirely a matter for the Scottish government and is not run from London. Therefore the UK government’s recent decisions on university tuition fees and higher education funding do not apply in Scotland.

How the Scottish administration has handled these matters is very familiar to anyone coming from Ireland. The government, which for the past four years has been run by the Scottish National Party (SNP), has committed itself to higher education without tuition fees. In an address to his party conference, First Minister Alex Salmond adapted a song by Robert Burns and promised that there would be no fees until “the rocks will melt with the sun”. This was followed by similar promises made by the Labour leader Iain Gray and the Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott. The only senior politician to suggest anything different is Scottish Conservatives leader Annabel Goldie, but that is not of much practical significance as the Conservatives have no chance of being in government North of the border. The Scottish elections will take place in May, but the outcome won’t change the position regarding tuition fees.

The financial position of Scotland’s higher education institutions is not necessarily as dire as that facing Irish colleges. On the whole the government has managed to maintain reasonable levels of public funding, so that for example my own university, with student numbers that are roughly the same as those of DCU, gets considerably more money in its annual recurrent grant. But public finances are being squeezed here also, and there have been some cuts. Some universities have managed this situation better than others: Glasgow University, for example, one of Scotland’s “ancient” universities, announced a little while ago that it would run out of cash in 2013, It has since announced a string of cuts. Other institutions are also facing financial pressures and are looking at possible rationalisation.

The government is aware that the financial position of the universities is not sustainable and has been thinking aloud about what to do about it. One interesting measure that has been adopted is that English students (only) now have to pay tuition fees in Scotland (though they are not as high as would apply in an English university). Irish and other EU citizens enjoy free higher education in Scotland (there isn’t even a registration charge) – and my own university has a thriving community of Irish students.

Only English (and non-EU) students pay anything, something that many Scots find rather satisfying. But it won’t be enough to off-set the shortfalls in public funding. The government has been urging everyone to find a “Scottish solution” to the higher education funding issue, but it is difficult to know what that could be. But leaving aside the funding issue, Scottish politicians and government officials seem less minded than their Irish counterparts to interfere in the strategy and operations of universities. A strategic review of higher education, New Horizons, was published in 2008. It reiterated the importance of university autonomy, but did establish a special fund to finance initiatives that addressed government-identified national priorities. But so far at least this has not been an intrusive process.

So politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea need to be realistic about the financial needs of higher education, and need to understand the limits of public funding.

Also, I believe that Ireland can learn from the much more benign and less control-oriented approach of the Scottish government to universities. Scotland in turn can learn from the way in which Ireland’s universities have been engaged by government agencies to support economic development and local regeneration.

Overall, there is considerable potential for a Celtic higher education corridor that might link Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. I intend to work on this idea.