On Academic Devolution

THOSE of us who can remember the devolution decade of the seventies, when Scotland came so close to acquiring an Assembly (without tax-raising powers), will have allowed themselves a small smile on hearing the news, this week, that there is to be a measure of academic devolution in Scotland.
Our universities are to be withdrawn from the funding mechanisms controlled by the Department of Education and Science in London and are to come under the control of a new body answerable to the Scottish Office.

In the debates that led up to the Scotland Act of 1979, repealed after the indecisive result of the referendum, it was one of the more painful discoveries to find that the Scottish universities had very little trust, in that time, in the ability or goodwill of their own countrymen.
For the Scottish Assembly to run our universities, we were led to believe, would be a fate worse than death.
Never mind that this was the country which had produced that extraordinary efflorescence, the Enlightenment. Never mind the pre-eminence it had achieved, in the nineteenth century, in the sciences and in medicine. Never mind that it had developed universities, in number and quality, far beyond what might have been expected in a small country and at a time before the alleged largesse of the UK state was available to it.
What had become clear by the seventies, of course, was that our universities had changed their character by having been integrated for some years into the UK system. When the  opponents of devolution spoke in horrified tones of the dangers of ”provincialism”, they probably did not appreciate the insult they were paying to the country that had created the institutions which paid their salaries.
What they were really saying was that they did not wish to be cut off from the gravy train that at the time still flowed from London, or from an academic career structure increasingly organised on a UK basis.
Much has changed, of course. The universities have come under enormous financial pressure. The idea of scholarship for its own sake, the idea of the university as a repository of academic excellence — these have given way to the stronger notion of the universities as suppliers of fodder and foot-soldiers for the economy.
With the harder times has come the realisation that the University Grants Committee, far from being the guarantor of academic freedom, as it was held to be during the seventies when the universities were contemplating what they thought might be a plunge into the dark ages, could become the ruthless and implacable agent of the Government. For some institutions the results were traumatic. Aberdeen went through a nightmare. Edinburgh is only now facing the consequences.
Oddly enough, during the eighties, few Scottish voices were much raised against the system that almost closed the Glasgow Vet School.
Those who spoke out most eloquently in defence of the Scottish traditions in education were a Welshman, Sir Alwyn Williams, then principal of Glasgow University, and an Englishman, Sir Graham Hills, who retires this year from the principal’s post at Strathclyde University. And, as with the defeat of the poll tax, the new arrangements have arisen not from Scottish protest but because the English decided to adjust their own system and found it convenient to do the same for Scotland.
Now that the universities are in the Scottish Office’s bailiwick, they are not out of the wood yet. Unit cost has become more important than academic excellence. The rise of the technical colleges (or polytechnics as they are now calling themselves) to university status will ensure that competition for funds remains intense. The business community will have a significant representation on the new funding body and is likely to place much emphasis on the fostering of ”life skills”.
Yet the greatest life skill of all is to be able to think for yourself, to have some inkling of wider horizons and other cultures, and to express your own ideas verbally and on paper. A friend of mine who studied law at Glasgow University told me that it had put him off reading books for life. He had had to read up on so many cases, and memorise them, that he had had a bellyful of the printed word.
This seems to me a terrible failure, as if his time at university had blinded him in one eye. There is quite enough philistinism in Scotland already; there are too many people who talk of nothing but football and their holidays in Long Beach; and as arbiters of taste the business community is not entirely to be trusted.
Despite the uncertainties ahead, the universities can take comfort from the Scottish Office’s history of effective lobbying in Whitehall and its ability to develop and defend its share of central funds. One of the curious byproducts of the devolution years was that the English and Scottish Office’s success and grew envious of it. Yet even in the more difficult climate of the eighties, the Scottish Office has avoided any decisive reverse although the Welsh Office has been the more favoured child.
Tom Nairn, in his book The Break-Up of Britain (New Left Books, 1977), described Scotland as a decapitated nation. Others have less colourfully called it a nation but not a state. It is possibly unique in the modern world. But Scotland’s peculiar condition has been made even odder by the anglicisation of the university community and its alienation from the affairs of its own country. Indeed, that alienation has sometimes seemed to approach contempt.
That trend may or may not have been reversed. In any independent Scotland, our universities, by continuing to educate many people from south of the Border and overseas, would become important economic assets, earning valuable foreign exchange. That is going too far, and too fast, for Scotland remains, despite its dissatisfactions, a Unionist country. But I do hope that this week’s announcement leads to our universities assuming a more natural role in Scottish life. Ian Lang is not noted for his devolutionary sentiments, but I congratulate him on a small triumph.