It's crazy time again. Free honours year if you come from Umbria, but a Pounds 1,000 bill for tuition fees if your native heath is Northumbria? Government policy that devolution should strengthen the Union took a remarkable and self-inflicted stab in the stomach with this proposal. The extraordinary suggestion that tuition fees for Scottish honours fourth year should be free for Scots (and Europeans) but chargeable to students from English homes is meat and drink for the slimy tentacles of racism. This is also a proposal which cuts diametrically across another flagship Government policy: tackling social exclusion.
Picture the future scene in St Andrews where half the current student population migrates from south of the border, and in Edinburgh with nearly as many. Yes, the ringing tones of "yahs" and "Sloanes" will still be heard. But those young English of more modest means, whose parents are not captains of industry or denizens of the shires, will in future reluctantly be heading for home-built redbrick. Such artificial barriers will of course be stoutly resisted by the heavyweights in the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals and their campus finance directors. Meanwhile the rest of us Scots should shudder at such a proposed social stratification of our more ancient seats of learning.
This proposition saw the light of controversy in the same week that the principal of Edinburgh University expounded, in a lecture to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, glimpses of how Scottish higher education may be shaping its post-Dearing thinking. Highlighting his themes of diversity and collaboration, Sir Stewart Sutherland took the sensible view that the twin diversities of purpose and outcome for Scottish universities are both inevitable and to be valued. Sir Stewart therefore doesn't believe that comparable standards (output measures in the jargon) can be applied across the board by external quality control. After all, only 10 per cent of universities in the United States offer education to doctorate level. So, horses for courses.
Looking at the Garrick proposal that the ratio of honours-general degrees should move from 70 per cent to 30 per cent to 50-50, Sir Stewart gave a strong hint that the future system would take a close look at the individual added-value of year four for each student. Practical considerations by the young themselves would also cause careful examination: tuition may be free, but loans will still be funding maintenance and costs. However, if sixth-formers are realistically to forsake what has become the fairly standard aspiration - an honours degree - action is needed by both ministers and industry. First, the Government could set an example to employers by opening the fast track of civil service entry, currently requiring honours, to a no doubt specially crafted three-year degree.
Second, major employers must sit down with universities to examine what core skills are required for three-year degrees designed to attract the brightest and the best. After all, as Sir Stewart said, what is Oxford's PPE degree - (the standard ticket for generations of British Empire builders) - if not a first-class general degree? You can't, of course, push this analogy too far. Five Highers do not guarantee entry to Oxford, whose students have all completed at least sixth year in school, like every other young person from an English education background.
The speaker flashed a mere glance in the direction of the Scottish school-university interface, observing that detailed discussion is needed. So it is. All pointers now indicate that sixth year in school may become the preferred student option in Scotland, and underline the urgency of a rethink on content and quality.