Time to challenge state's role in our universities

Article by John Blundell in The Scotsman

SCOTLAND needs an independent university. The present sprinkling of ancient and modern institutions has diverse flavours and expertises but all are held captive by the Scottish Executive. Entities that ought to be proud of their autonomy and entirely free from bureaucratic interventions are entirely subservient to the government.

Universities are often described as "cathedrals of the intellect", where free minds explore the future and the past and unravel the mysteries of nature. Young students are excited by their freedom from family constraints and have their minds opened in intimate contact with scholars who are wise and generous with their time.

Universities are also sizeable businesses that cascade salaries in their localities. For every academic fighting in his footnotes, there are regiments of administrative staff, cooks, cleaners and gardeners.

Yet there is another, less kindly way of describing Scottish universities - as autocratic bureaucracies doing the bidding of the First Minister and his alternating prejudices. Academics mostly regard undergraduates as ignorant spotty youths barely worth teaching. Cordial tutorials are a myth. It is mostly utterly anonymous lectures by graduate students never taught how to address an audience. The students have three or four years to have some fun, and often succeed, but the notion of an institution of higher learning is a falsehood. It is mostly sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. I apologise for being truthful.

This is not to deny even the most humble college will have some dedicated student scientists trying to solve problems or devise new inventions. These are the rare pearls in monstrously flabby oysters.

The polite humbug enunciated by everyone is that three years at the University of Paisley or Abertay will produce thousands of young people better attuned in their life skills and better able to contribute to our greater welfare after the mysterious process we call "higher education". It is suggested they will invigorate Scotland's business life after wading through their shallows of media studies, sociology, Marxism, feminism or others isms or ologies.

In short, Scotland's universities pretend to be separate but are in fact merely different campuses of the single patron institution that pays all the money - the Scottish Executive. St Andrews may be a pretty rose-cottage place but it is performing the same job as the Caledonian University in its Glasgow sprawl.

I urge Scotland to nourish at least one university entirely independent of the state. The model to emulate is the University of Buckingham.

Where might such a gem be set? Perth seems to be obvious for any shortlist. Elgin is handsome but remote. Fraserburgh had a medieval university but it expired. Kelso looks a possibility. Perhaps Edinburgh as a metropolitan city with four present universities could be enhanced by a fifth. The contrast would be a jolt for everyone.

Buckingham's virtues are that it is run for its customers - its undergraduates. They are defined by their ambitions. They want to get on with the adventure of living and working. Instead of floundering about for the Scottish four-year "honours" degree, they get their degrees after two years of far more intensive full-time study. The very nature of that study is much more personalised than in the anonymous halls of Scotland's "jimmyversities". No class is ever bigger then ten students.

A Scotsman well able to head such a new institution as its chancellor is Professor Sir Alan Peacock who did lead Buckingham as its vice-chancellor. He is richly amusing in his stories of fellow vice-chancellors in thrall to ministerial and departmental whim and academic warfare.

Buckingham has minimal bureaucracy and, apart from its Royal Charter, no ties to the state.

I asked Terence Kealey, the present VC of Buckingham, if he thought Scotland could prosper with a truly independent college: "Good luck to it. It will be hard work but the competition will give them a shudder. A recent survey showed the two best universities in the UK are Buckingham and the Open University... the only two who charge realistic fees. The quicker Scotland follows Adam Smith's prescription and creates an independent university the quicker it will resume its placed as the centre of a new Enlightenment."

This is to argue Scotland's primary institutions of learning are strangled in their own dependence on one master. As businesses they would flourish as genuinely liberated entities. They would have to be customer-friendly instead of politician-friendly.

Although any university is a great cascade of expenditure to its host town, it seems true that Scots academics are falling down international league tables of earnings. They are effectively civil servants on civil servant grades - rather junior ones. I would envisage inspirational teachers or researchers (often different people) could command far higher salaries than the present blanket uniformity.

The ethos of every Scottish university is one of endless bureaucracy - not of teaching or learning.

We forget that university origins lay in supplying dutiful divines for the Kirk and obedient clerks for the Crown. Dutiful and obedient is what Scottish universities remain. Let us nurture defiance and diversity instead.


John Blundell is director-general of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

See also:
Beyond Universities: A New Republic of the Intellect and
Buckingham at 25: Freeing the Universities from State Control
.

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