Mike Vickers' Blog

March 11, 2011

Reform of Scotland’s Universities – a SPIF Forum

Filed under: DHI SPIF, Education — derryvickers @ 9:42 pm

I attended a SPIF (Scottish Policy Innovation Forum) forum for the reform of Scotland’s universities, chaired by Jim Gallagher with speakers Prof Seamus McDaid of the West of Scotland University, Jeremy Peat of the David Hume Institute and Liam Burns, President of NUS Scotland.

All agreed that Universities are the key asset of Scotland.  Graduates are part of our social as well as our economic capital.

So why is the % GDP that Scotland invests only 1% while England is 1.3%, the OECD average is 1.5%, China and India 2% and the US 2.9%

The deficit in funding to Universities will be £142 this coming year and obviously Student fees came up.  Note that only the Tories said that they considered it necessary to impose a graduate contribution in Scotland but all speakers were sceptical that once the election was over that the other parties would continue to hold the no fees line.  Liam Burns welcomed Scotland’s position on no graduate contribution but considered that whatever the situation it was better to consider a package of student support. 

Seamus McDaid and others felt that too little attention is being given to part time students who could go through HNC, HND and then on to university as one means of reducing the cost of student support – a University Apprenticeship model

Seamus also considered the transition from school to university needs smoothing.  This lead to a consideration of whether students completing a 6th year at school might not go straight into the 2nd year at university. 

If by not charging it is important that Scottish Universities don’t get classed as 2nd class and it is important that students continue to come from South of the Border and from outside the EU.

Speakers from the floor raised the question of directed / sponsored research in the 4th year and this got some welcome.  John Francis of the UNESCO Scotland recalled that he did two years learning and two years working on industry based projects. 

It was take as a given that universities will always have research as part of their remit.

Jeremy Peat was more concerned with introducing efficiencies through, for example, shared back office processes and outsourcing canteen arrangements – he felt it was quite anonymous that outsourcing is subject to 20% VAT while doing the job internally avoided this cost.

Paul Spicker of Robert Gordon’s and Richard Kerley of Queen Margaret’s felt that we are only tinkering at the edges, a much more fundamental look at the role of universities  is necessary – the universities are still back in the middle ages; however neither came up with much in the way of fundamental reform except perhaps the need to carter more fully for ‘life long learning.  More generally it was felt by a number of members from the floor that universities need to think again on why they exist and make their objectives more transparent.

Jim Gallagher in summing up felt that universities were in crisis which would emerge once the election was over yet the universities are a top quality national asset.  ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’.  There needs to be a short term and a long term solution.  The short-term is the funding, the long term is creating democratic intellect (no I don’t know what this means).  Universities need to become more egalitarian.  He suggested there are more valuable ways of filling the funding gap than removing bus passes.

An  important kick-off to reforming the Universities in Scotland.  The only pity was that there could have been a lot more attendees and it would have been good to see a few MSPs.

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