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Future needs more than just bean counters

Michael Russell is A Writer And Commentator

A couple of weeks ago, on a cold March evening, many students and some staff of Crichton campus in Dumfries turned out to demonstrate against the presence on campus of Sir Muir Russell, principal of Glasgow University. He had been invited to lecture on the future of higher education - a sensitive issue because he had just announced the gradual closure of his university's presence at the Crichton just eight years after it opened.

The group was large, noisy and mostly young, and I did not notice any preponderance of "middle-aged ladies", the over-representation of whom at the Crichton had been criticised by the Scottish Funding Council when it looked at future support for the institution. The fact that such ladies were choosing to study the liberal arts was, allegedly, seen as a bad thing.

That attitude seemed to be borne out in the lecture, too. Russell, pictured, gave a bean counter's speech - full of figures, devoid of vision and largely focused on process. He delighted in mentioning science, maths and medicine, and squeezed in engineering, but scarcely said a word about the liberal arts until a questioner took him to task. Even then, he seemed reluctant to promote anything other than postgraduate research and never once praised the groundbreaking work on Scottish cultural studies which the Crichton has pioneered.

The First Minister has also side-stepped the issue in his assurances that, despite the withdrawal of Glasgow, the future of the Crichton is safe. It is safe in the sense that it will not all be swallowed up by a housing development perhaps, but not safe in terms of a broad range of subjects for study and a wide outlook which puts enquiry about the arts and society in today's Scotland on a par with more deterministic studies.

Comment copy = This problem may seem small for those who live nowhere near the south-west of Scotland and are unlikely to undertake higher education there. But its implications go much wider than the immediate area. Dumfries and Galloway will be much the poorer for losing the Glasgow University input to what was planned as a nascent University of the South of Scotland.

There will also be a strong psychological blow to the town which, compared with much of the rest of Scotland, is poorly served by government and lacks any significant state-sponsored investment. There will also be a blow to those now moving through the upper echelons of our schools and thinking about applying for arts and humanities courses at Scottish universities.

Clearly, the Scottish Executive sees such courses as less important than those which teach more applied skills. Governments are entitled to prioritise where they think need lies, but not to use back-door methods and disadvantage those who believed they were being offered real opportunity.

The executive is also - by commission and omission - discouraging investment in the liberal arts. We need scientists, engineers and IT specialists, but we also need those who can make connections between disciplines, use thinking skills and breadth of knowledge, and whose lively minds can solve problems of all types. And we need those whose understanding of our country (who we are, where we came from and who we might be). They can help us to achieve a better future by avoiding past mistakes.

That may be the nub of the issue. Those whose vested establishment interests would be put at risk by a new, more confident national dispensation cannot thole the idea of thinking our way out of dependence.

They want to keep Scotland's young people bean counting what is, rather than inspirationally dreaming about what could be.

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