17 Sep 2015
Are we really sure that legislating on the governance of universities is wise? I ask because I count the University sector as one of Scotland’s outstanding success stories and I’m no longer sure what we think we’re fixing by interfering in the independence of such important civic institutions.
Universities Scotland certainly doesn’t think it’s helpful and, whilst you’ll say that’s no surprise, they do make some concerning points. The consequences, for example, for universities’ charitable status of overdoing increased Government influence hardly look worth the risk. That status is critical in securing research funding from many foundations.
It’s worth remembering just what universities achieve. They’re the reason Glasgow has more of its workforce educated to at least degree level than any of the 10 biggest cities in the UK outside London – one of the 10 reasons for Glasgow being an economic powerhouse. That alone makes for a competitive offer when the city is pitching for inward investment.
The universities are magnets for research talent in key growth sectors like health and life sciences, energy and engineering. Every one of Glasgow’s universities substantially increased its position in the UK’s 2014 research excellence rankings.
They’re deepening their relationship with the business community and beginning to tackle that long-established Scottish challenge of converting academic research into commercial returns. Glasgow University’s work on stratified medicine and Strathclyde’s work in its new Technology Innovation Centre have been highly promising recent examples.
They’re growing overseas trading links and attracting thousands of foreign students into the city. This success is encouraging further investment of several hundred millions of their own resources in modern campuses. You’ll see that at Glasgow Caledonian, at Strathclyde, at Glasgow School of Art and soon at Glasgow University as it rolls out its near £800m campus plan over the next seven years.
So, with demonstrable success on our hands, why is the Government legislating? Is it simply that we give the universities a considerable sum in public funding through the Scottish Funding Council as one Cabinet Secretary suggested? If so that isn’t good enough. Public money isn’t even the universities’ majority source of income.
I think the deal is straightforward. We give the universities public money to guarantee Scottish students get free higher education in return, and the universities are delivering at levels we would never have imagined 20 years ago. That’s it.
There are many fundamental issues to tackle in Scottish education. The governance of our universities does not appear to be one of them.