In 1969, a vice-principal of Edinburgh University felt able to assert to great applause that any attempt to place the Scottish universities in the hands of a purely Scottish body could "only conduce to their decline". Sixteen years later the Scottish Tertiary Education Advisory Committee cautiously suggested such a horrifying development, but it was only able to do so by hedging this recommendation with conditions that many of the authors perfectly well knew could not be fulfilled. Repatriation seemed a dead duck.
Yet a bare dozen years further on the scene has totally changed. Not only has a fervently Unionist Government endorsed repatriation, but has even swept away the caste system that separated "real" universities from the central institutions and those other degree providers that had always sought their financing in Edinburgh. As a result we now have an entertaining volume produced not as it would have been a century ago by a committee of university principals meeting in the Station Hotel, Perth, but by a Committee of Higher Education Principals at last forced into communion by a Treasury fiat.
Such a remarkable turnaround could hardly have been achieved without blood, sweat and tears, fluids which, the principal of Edinburgh University points out, can either have "adhesive powers, or [be] merely the stains of war" and it still remains to be seen which they are in this case. The great thing is, however, that such a diverse group of institutions are now sharing their plans and their perceptions and even beginning to share them with the rest of us.
Naturally, this produces a mixed bag. Principal Andrew Miller of Stirling provides us with an essay on the Scottish research tradition that is stimulating and realistic, but it is depressing then to turn to an essay by the principal of Strathclyde that purports to demonstrate the "distinctiveness" of Scottish higher education but ignores the entire debate about that "distinctiveness" that has raged in Scottish history and philosophy departments over the past 30 years.
The most useful contributions are less concerned with dubious historical assertions than with the analysis of current problems. Sir Stewart Sutherland, principal of Edinburgh, provides a useful and far from trite discussion of the measurement of quality and standards. Do fashionable quality audits and teaching quality assessments really provide assurance?
Gordon Kirk on teacher education, Chris Carter on art and design and Maria Slowey on continuing education all strike an equally realistic and as yet unsatisfied note. The last in particular, along with Peter Bush on changes in qualifications, reminds us of how stuck so may of their fellow contributors are in the old, static pre-modular, pre-access world. In fact, the idea of students having a single alma mater may well be dying as more and more of them begin to pick up bits of their degree in all kinds of places, gaining experiences and credits in a variety of institutions, shopping around like those who sought a fuller education in 18th-century Edinburgh.
At the heart of such developments are the planners of the University of the Highlands and Islands and here their academic adviser firmly rejects such old-fashioned notions as external examiners and peer reviews as the basis of quality control ("You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours") in favour of measuring success and value for money in more personal and societal terms.
Another clear agent of change, of course, has been the Open University. Its vice-chancellor makes a fair go of demonstrating the OU's contribution to Scottish life, but inexplicably it remains the responsibility of an English funding council. It was after all the need for a fully integrated and distinctly Scottish approach to the organisation and planning of higher education that persuaded the Government to set up a Scottish funding body in the first place.
On the evidence of this collection it has proved to be a positive move and has stimulated much new thought but one has to say that on the same evidence there is still an awful lot of atrophied thinking around that will need even stronger stimulation if all of Scotland's higher education system is really to shake itself free of the divisions and assumptions of the immediate past and make itself ready for what will be a very different century.
Bob Bell is a freelance writer and was until recently in the educational faculty of the Open University. A Future for Scottish Higher Education, edited by Ronald Crawford, is available at Pounds 10 from COSHEP, St Andrew House, 141 West Nile Street, Glasgow G1 2RN.