Fair shares in funding?

"Captain, the engines cannae take much more" - the catchphrase of "Scottie" of Star Trek was based on the stereotypical, highly trained Scots mechanic. Albeit in a futuristic guise, this was the kind of chap that in days of yore Dundee Technical College prided itself on turning out. The college, founded in 1888 for the training of mechanics, as shown in the stone carvings on the front of its original home, moved on to navigation, which explains the ship's bridge that stands on its roof. Now, reincarnated as the University of Abertay Dundee, it specialises in biotechnology and computer games. It was Abertay that trained the creator of Grand Theft Auto.

But recently Professor Bernard King – Scotland’s longest-serving university principal – has been attracting attention of a different sort for, as he puts it, “rattling the bars of the cage”, heaping criticism on the quango that distributes university funding north of the border.

King used a graduation ceremony recently to make an angry speech claiming that new universities are being discriminated against in favour of the old establishment heavyweights of St Andrews, Edinburgh and their ilk, and asking his students to take political action.

Unfair rules

New Scottish executive funding is, he says, being carved up according to “unfair” rules that give the money according to a formula that recognises research in a way that favours older universities with a historic research mission.

“I don’t think it is fair,” he says. “I think the working-class students we teach are entitled to the same kind of facilities as they would find at an older university.”

The formula by which the Scottish Funding Council distributes its cash is nothing new, and not dissimilar to the English model. But for King the picture is changed by tuition fees, which create different, market-led hoops to jump through for his peers south of the border. Despite the disadvantages, they work according to a simple rule. If a university can put bums on seats in its lecture halls, the fees come straight into its coffers and bypass the funding body.

King has worked out that if Abertay were in England, he would be looking at an extra £4m a year in funding. But despite the executive giving an extra £200m to the funding council – to increase universities’ “competitiveness” and, it is understood, to make up for the lack of tuition fees – due to the research-heavy formula that favours institutions that have had a historic mission to produce blue-sky research, Abertay stands to gain only an extra £300,000 in the next academic year. Edinburgh University will receive 14 times as much, which works out at almost 300% more per student that it educates.

The principal of Edinburgh, Tim O’Shea, sees nothing inequitable about that. “There needs to be investment in really world-class research. The Scottish higher education sector is performing very well by any measure. There is a real understanding and support from the funding council and from the politicians and, as long as that continues, I am sure we can work out a solution that will enable the sector to continue performing well.”

But King thinks the question needs to be changed. “Should we be funding just a few universities selectively so that they can pursue their ambitions to be world-class, or should we be funding all our universities properly so that Scotland can be world-class?” he asks.

For King, turning out technically skilled graduates and working closely with spin-off companies and industry is of at least as much value to the economy as the “blue-sky research” that is rewarded with funding council gold. “A lot of blue-sky research has no application whatsoever. It might produce one Nobel prize winner, but how much is that worth to the economy compared to what we do?” Work on computer games does not even count in terms of research, he says, regardless of its economic potential, as it is not seen as “pure computing”.

King says Scottish politicians, who are gearing up for a Holyrood election, have not even begun to solve the conundrum of how a mass higher education system is going to be funded in the long term. More than £1bn of public money will be spent on higher education north of the border in the next academic year. “The cost of university education used to be a pimple on the body politic. It is no longer a pimple.”

There are others less willing to stick their heads above the parapet who agree, at least in part. One senior figure at another Scottish university, who did not want to be named, described the Scottish National party’s (SNP) flagship policy of “dump the debt”, a promise to cancel all outstanding student loans and bring back grants for all, as “potty” and something that would inevitably cut into the funds available to universities.

The SNP shadow education minister, Fiona Hyslop, said “dump the debt” would reduce the cost of servicing student loans, which she calculated as £100m a year. “We would meet that directly out of the Scottish budget,” Hyslop says. She denies that this would reduce money available for investment in higher education.

Growing gap in funding

None of the political parties has yet made a concrete proposal for the long-term funding of Scotland’s expanding higher education sector, but the current settlement runs out at the end of this academic year and the assumption is that another spending review will have to find a large enough sum to compete with what universities are raising through fees in England.

But the architect of Scotland’s student funding regime, Andrew Cubie, who headed the inquiry that led to the scrapping of tuition fees, has called for an independent inquiry into higher education funding, saying there is a growing gap. “The issue of the funding of higher education is so important to Scotland that we cannot have a position where we are disadvantaged relative to the position in England with top-up fees. We’re in a very competitive market globally and we have to avoid being in a position where we are disadvantaged.”

The principal of St Andrews University, Brian Lang, agrees that there is a problem with the long-term funding of the sector. For English universities, the problem has been dealt with. “They have a long-term sustainable source of income. We don’t know what is going to happen after 2007. That hampers our ability to make long-term plans.”

He is keen to make a case for the funding of research. “There are two issues here. The debate has been dominated by the issue of student funding. We also need to make sure that research is funded and supported. It is vital to the Scottish economy.”

But back at Abertay, Bernard King’s message to the first minister, Jack McConnell, and the SNP’s leader, Alex Salmond, is clear – whoever leads the next Scottish administration. “Captain, the sector cannae take much more.”

The Guardian
2nd January 2007