Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, is reported to be toying with the idea of a league of "super-universities" which would attract special funding. Although her remit in higher education does not extend north of the border, it is clear that any attempt to rank universities by size and merit would involve the 13 in Scotland. That is because much of the research funding which would flow to the favoured institutions and be in short supply elsewhere, is determined at a UK level through the research councils.
The need to continue to finance research projects on a UK basis was generally accepted when other aspects of higher education funding were devolved to Scotland. But there was then no suggestion that a super league might emerge, and there is no reason why Scottish opinion should support such a development now.
In Scotland, Edinburgh and to a lesser extent Glasgow have outstripped the other universities in attracting research income. But that does not mean that in a UK context the two large civic institutions should regard themselves as candidates for promotion. The existence for historical reasons of two "super-universities" in Oxford and Cambridge has affected the development of the whole system in a way that has never happened north of the border. Ours is a different tradition and a healthier one.
All institutions are able to bid for finance according to their own aspirations and success in achieving them. The new universities are encouraged to develop their own strengths, especially in teaching. They cannot hope in the short term to attain the international reputation of Edinburgh or replicate the long-established student facilities of St Andrews or Aberdeen. But they neither feel destined to second-class status nor are deterred financially from developing their own centres of excellence.
The danger of a super league is that it would undermine attempts by other universities to attract leading researchers and teachers. If Glasgow were to appear in a UK top ten, as Graeme Davies, its principal, appears to want, what would be the effect on Strathclyde with its important and growing research reputation? There is much to be said for Scottish higher education competing internationally without losing Scottish identity and commonality.