Enough to make you choke

12th September 2008 at 01:00

If a publican was to say "Drink more beer" or a cheesemonger said "Eat more cheese", we would not be surprised. So it should come as no shock, it should not frighten the horses, when Anton Muscatelli, principal of Heriot-Watt University and convener of Universities Scotland, says to school pupils: "Study for more degrees". And yet, when the prof suggested that Scottish universities should set a target of recruiting 66 per cent of school-leavers, politicians shot from the hip, the horses bolted and the more laid back thought: "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?"

A target more sympathetically received would have been to help students with their anxieties and challenges which lead to some frightening double- digit figures for the number of students dropping out after the first year. Why not aim to reduce the drop-out rates which some of his fellow principals don't like to talk about? It's not enough to get customers through the door. I've known publicans show more interest in their regulars; after all, they want them to come back.

And why 66 per cent? Why not 67 or 65 per cent? It seems it's not so much a hard target as a soft number which can be described as towards 70 per cent, or two thirds. Whatever, it's well beyond our current level of 47 per cent - down from the peak reached in 2000 when it was 51 per cent.

So it's more about the direction of travel than the distance or the speed and, wearing his businessman's hat, Professor Muscatelli must look at Scotland's position of 10th in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development league table of school-leavers in tertiary education and think: "If we fall any lower, can we still claim as a sector to be world class?" In some leagues, that position means you're fighting relegation.

What's so wrong with two-thirds anyway? Top of the premiership table is New Zealand with a staggering 89 per cent. And last year, before our credit was being crunched, a Scottish Enterprise-funded report argued that we would need 198,000 postgraduates and 138,000 graduates by 2017 to feed an anticipated 18 per cent expansion in jobs.

Running a McDonalds franchise, you need to anticipate demand and see where the market is not being catered for and look to grow there. The prof was surely only doing his job?

If there's one thing that's different from him asking more school students to pass through the principals' own golden arches and the publican or the cheesemonger saying "Buy more of my wares", it is that they don't expect the taxpayer to pick up the bill.

Was that why he talked of school leavers? Why not university expansion overall? Could it be that his interview with a Scottish daily paper was timed to underline the universities' appeal for more taxpayer funding? An appeal to the Scottish Government's inherent patriotism to match the levels of public and private funding now flowing to the English universities - thanks to those dreaded things called student tuition fees?

The one thing about school leavers in Scotland is that they are, as of right, publicly-funded customers, whereas others have to pay their own way or compete for support - and in England have to top up out of their own (or their parents') pockets.

If the Government cannot come up with the cash, what next? Will principals have the courage required in collectivist Scotland to say: "Let us charge student tuition fees"?

The SNP's patriotism comes cheap when taxpayers cough up, but increasing the number of school leavers entering university to 66 per cent? Even Finance Secretary John Swinney will struggle to buy that particular Big Mac with extra cheese. "Scottish students buy their own burgers" - that would be a headline. It's long overdue.

Brian Monteith absconded from Heriot-Watt after three years' study for a life-changing job at Westminster.

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