Holyrood and HE

Higher education is beginning to face up to the implications of the Scottish parliament. The annual conference of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals was devoted to the theme and a starter paper had been prepared which asked political as well as institutional questions.

Answers will not begin to appear until after the parliament is established, but the principal of Queen Margaret College, who convened the group drawing up the paper, warned against "planning blight", the belief that nothing can be done until the MSPs are in session.

Some questions are institutional, such as whether a small country needs a funding council separate from the education department and if so, whether the existing body needs to be recast, bearing in mind that its executive is soon to be responsible for further as well as higher education. Other matters are more fundamental, particularly the historic level of university autonomy.

Some commentators believe that the emerging political class, mainly sympathetic to Labour and the SNP, will be unsympathetic to universities accused of elitism or too dominated by non-Scottish influences. Others think that political leaders who overwhelmingly will be graduates of the Scottish universities are bound to have a soft spot for their almae matres and the wider system.

What is incontrovertible is the pressure the new administration will be under from all sorts of worthy causes - farmers, small businesses, hard-pressed regions, to name only a few. Even within education the emphasis on pre-school and primary will make the cake hard to cut.

Universities are essential to the culture and economy of the country in terms of research, business spin-offs and quality of life. But they will have to broadcast with new professionalism their pursuit of excellence and its complement, access by an ever rising percentage of the population.

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