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Scottish universities: stranded between union and devolution

  • 21 July 2021
  • By Peter Scott

This blog was kindly contributed by Peter Scott, Professor of Higher Education Studies at the UCL Institute of Education.

At the level of high (low?) politics the three-centuries union of England and Scotland still endures – despite Brexit and Scotland’s enforced departure from the European Union and despite the Scottish National Party’s continuing dominance of politics north of the Border. It seems to be common ground, among both unionists and nationalists, that it will continue to endure until the majority of Scottish voters support independence in a referendum.

But from the start the Union was conditional and partial, based on a treaty between two kingdoms. Scotland’s domestic affairs remained in Scottish hands, certainly in the limited terms in which the competence of the State was understood in the 18th century. Law, religion and education remained serrate.

In the 19th century an apparently irreversible process of convergence produced the Union that is in sharp contention today. An imperial British identity was forged. The advance of ‘Reform’ and the explosion of the State in the later 19th and 20th centuries then led to expansion of UK-wide bureaucracies and shared institutions. But at the end of the 20th century devolution and the re-establishment of a Scottish Parliament produced a sharp reversal of these trends. The Union shrank back closer to its original 18th-century conception.

Today it is an open question whether the Union still exists, despite the sound and fury about indy2 and other political noise. Two of the key functions of the modern State – health and education – are now in the separate hands of the Scottish Government and, in default of devolution in England, the UK Government. The third key function, management of the economy, although awkwardly shared between Edinburgh and London, remains predominantly in the hands of the UK Government.

The pandemic has highlighted just how far devolution has gone (in Wales too). But devolution has been a long time in the making, even setting aside the conditionality of the original 1707 Union. Scotland never introduced the customer-contractor principle that underpinned English reform of the National Health Service. When student fees were reintroduced in England, Scotland, after a brief wobble, retained the principle of free higher education. These are only the two most high-profile examples of policy divergence.

In this curious Cheshire Cat context of a Union that both endures but has faded away Scottish higher education – or, more accurately, Scotland’s universities – are awkwardly poised. Since the original Union Treaty, of course, education in Scotland, including the four ancient universities, had remained separate. But in the course of the last century these universities, and more recently established ones, received State funding through the University Grants Committee, a constitutional anomaly because the UGC in its later years was responsible to the English Ministry of Education (and its successors). That anomaly ended with the so-called ‘repatriation’ of the Scottish universities, a campaign which – to my shame or credit – I strongly supported in an earlier role as the then Editor of The Times Higher Education [Supplement]!

Today Scotland’s universities must juggle with being both UK and Scottish institutions, in a way that is not a concern of universities in England where ‘England’ and ‘UK’ are elided. The same applies to universities in Wales which must juggle Welsh and UK identities.

Scottish universities are part of a UK system of higher education in a double sense.

  • First, along with universities in England and Wales they form a shared community held together by common academic values (and nowadays managerial practices). Of course, these values and practices are shared across a wider European, and ultimately world, university space. But they are particularly intense and dense, embodied in peer reviewers, external examiners and all the daily routine of academic life as well as common representative bodies and mission groups in the institutional and managerial register.
  • Second, key elements of UK-wide policy and administrative infrastructure remain. The most obvious is UKRI, and the research councils. The Research Excellence Framework remains a UK-wide exercise, even if its results are applied differently. Then there are UCAS, the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the Quality Assurance Agency, Advance HE and the rest.

But they are part of a Scottish higher education system, in partnership with colleges that have experienced many fewer Anglicising influences and are conceived of and organised very differently compared with further education colleges in England, and also with a school system similarly organised very differently (still local authority run, separate exams). Above all they both benefit and suffer from the close attention of the Scottish Government, which unlike the UK Government prioritises detailed public administration over ideological gesturing. They certainly benefit from the more collaborative ethos of the Scottish Funding Council, a positively cuddly body compared with the Office of Students down south.

Some may argue none of this is a problem. All universities have to cope with multiple identities – as major institutions in their local communities, regional actors, national institutions and, for most, international institutions too. For Scottish (and Welsh) institutions it is just a little more complicated. I am not so sure.

First, the distribution of the policy and administrative infrastructure between the UK and Scottish Governments is incoherent. It has produced random results. For example, in Scotland the dual-support system of research, the distinction between core institutional and project and programme funding, has been strengthened with the former allocated by the SFC and the latter by (UK) research councils. In England the opposite has happened. UKRI distributes both – core funding through Research England, a special-purpose vehicle within UKRI, and project and programme funding through the research councils. Was this divergence consciously intended and, if it was, what was it supposed to mean in terms of the nexus between curiosity driven and programmatic research, or even between research and teaching?

Second the policy environment, and the policies themselves, have sharply diverged. The headline examples are that Scotland has retained tuition-free higher education (from which, incidentally, the great majority of UK as well as Scottish politicians, Conservative as well as Labour or Liberal Democrat, benefitted) – if only for Scottish domiciled students. As a result the number of these students is capped, although this Anglo-Scottish difference may soon disappear if in its delayed response to Augar the UK Government ends up capping numbers in English universities directly or covertly.

But less important than the policies themselves, which after all can be changed, is the policy environment. Scottish higher education is a steered if not fully planned system. Competition between institutions is dialled down. Collaboration is the dominant policy mode. In England no attempt has been made consciously to steer the system, despite the increasing intrusiveness of the OfS (and, de facto, the DfE) in a whole range of areas from ‘free speech’ through degree classifications to entry standards. And, of course, competition has been dialled up. These differences in the policy environment are not confined to the actions of the two Governments and their agents. For example, north of the Border the QAA placed a much greater emphasis on quality enhancement and correspondingly less on quality surveillance.

My final reason for scepticism is that the state of Union is sharply contested, and there is little prospect of a political truce between SNP Holyrood and Tory Westminster. But, once again, it is as much about structural faults as party politics. The UK is, at the same time, a unified State, with ambitions to centralise decision making that would have made the Jacobins or Napoleon blush, and a federal state, however incoherently organised (and, as I said at the start, in the case of Scotland and England this is not a recent post-devolution state of affairs; it goes all the way back to 1707).

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that shrill defence of the Union, whether by Boris Johnson or Gordon Brown, is part and parcel of an instinctive reluctance to open up the Pandora’s Box of wider reform of the UK State – a written constitution, fairer voting for the House of Commons, the disentangling of Executive power and legislative authority, the revival of local (and regional) government and the rest. It may be this reluctance, as well the bad political blood between the SNP in Edinburgh and Tories in London, that has made it impossible to develop the grown-up debate that has been fostered in Canada (and Quebec) with its nuanced distinctions between ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’.

And – in the middle – are Scotland’s universities.

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