Article for Evening News on Higher Education

Evening News

The news that Scotland’s universities are in danger of falling behind the rest of the world should worry everyone in Scotland. In 2000 we had one of the highest gradation rates in the world – we are now only average. Scotland risks losing the benefits of leading the world in higher education.

Scotland’s success has been always built on the strength of our education system. We are a not a large nation and cannot compete through simply building our domestic economy. For Scotland, it has always been quality, not quantity that counts.

We are rightly proud of the role that Scots played in inventing the modern world. Television, telephones, penicillin, antiseptics, lawnmowers, microwave ovens and even computer games can all be claimed as Scots inventions. More recently it was the team at the Roslin Institute near Dalkeith who cloned Dolly the sheep. Even the headline grabbing Large Hadron Collider, recently launched in Switzerland has Scottish roots. One of the main reasons it was built was to search for the elusive ‘Higgs boson’, whose existence was first suggested by Professor Peter Higgs of Edinburgh University.

But if Scotland’s Universities lose their world class status, we cannot expect to be able add to this amazing list of achievements. Last year Scotland’s University Principals calculated they needed an extra £168 million to keep pace with the revenue English and Welsh Universities were receiving from top-up fees. They got only £40 million. Unless proper support comes from the government this year the gap will grow even wider.

So who should pay for universities? South of the border the decision has been made to ask students to cough up in the form of hefty top up fees. But greater financial demands will inevitably mean that students get only the education they can afford, rather than the education they need. Some of our best and brightest young people are already choosing not to enter higher education because the fear it will be too expensive. We cannot allow this to continue.

Scotland has always chosen a different model of higher education to England. Edinburgh University was founded in 1582 by the town council because they believed that having a University was vital to the continued prosperity of the city.

Edinburgh chose not to follow the Oxford and Cambridge model. England’s two ancient universities were very much private institutions, funded privately as the apex of a gentleman’s private education. Rather, Edinburgh followed the model of the other Scottish universities and has always been a public, not a private institution. Central to this is the idea that universities should be about democratising knowledge – making it available to all. Indeed, my position as an elected Rector symbolises the idea that the University should be publicly accountable.

I believe the city fathers made a wise choice in 1582. We should ensure that everyone has the maximum opportunity to learn. We must widen access to all, including mature students and drive up the number of graduates in the population. Instead of having only average numbers in Higher Education we should be aiming for the top of those world rankings. This means Universities must be properly funded out of general taxation. Without that we risk falling even further behind and failing our most valuable assets – our young people.


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