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Taking 'perturbations' in its stride

For the first time since the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council was set up, it has had its remit changed by the Government.

Attention inevitably focused on the education minister's implied concession that student tuition fees are likely to reduce intake numbers and universities may need financial cushioning. John Sizer, SHEFC's chief executive, referred to "perturbations" in student numbers - a larger than expected intake this session because of the imminence of fees, followed by a possible downturn next year. Even without ministerial instruction, the council would not be pedantic in penalising under-recruitment any more than it had come down against institutions which had marginally exceeded their targets.

Brian Wilson will be pleased that the SHEFC takes perturbations in its stride, but he must be embarrassed that reassurance to universities is necessary when the thrust of his letter to the council is that more should be done to recruit students from a wide range of backgrounds. Labour's access policy is tarnished, since it is the least well-off students who are deterred by fees and heavier maintenance costs.

The Government's higher education policy is blighted by the student funding controversy. Yet other aspects of the injunctions to the SHEFC should not be ignored. Small institutions are back in favour. Until now the Government (and the funding council) were happy to wait for hard-pressed "monotechs" to seek shelter with a bigger partner. Too late for the colleges of education comes a change of tack. The costs of independence for art colleges and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama are now acceptable.

Small is beautiful, too, in research. The new universities, which, as central institutions, were not funded to do research, have complained about the research selectivity exercise under which money follows research excellence. How could they become eligible when they lacked the finance to develop research and yet the only way to get more money was to be in the research game?

Professor Sizer has indicated that the 5 per cent of funds which do not follow the outcome of the last review of research will be increased slightly to help promising units within new universities. Bernard King, the outspoken principal of Abertay, will be pleased. The principals of Edinburgh and Glasgow would worry if there was too much attention to equity at the expense of excellence.

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