Mellowing towards merger

13th December 2002 at 00:00
A new book recounts the controversial marriage between Moray House and Edinburgh University in 1996, but Willis Pickard recalls it rather differently

Journalists become used to synthetic anger. But on the day in 1996 when as editor of The TES Scotland I was asked to come immediately to Heriot-Watt University, the academic ire being vented was genuine.

The cause was a decision by Moray House Institute of Education to abandon its association with Heriot-Watt and start talks with Edinburgh University aimed at a merger. Gordon Kirk, Moray House's principal, was accused of bad faith - and Edinburgh University was not let off scot-free, either. Since this tale was given me on the paper's press day, I had to phone Professor Kirk. After listening to another tirade, I suggested that only a toned-down report of his comments would be wise.

Kirk has now retold - in more measured terms - this story of institutional bed-swapping as part of a description of how and why Moray House within little more than a decade moved from strident defence of its autonomy as a college to absorption within Edinburgh University. Using minutes of college meetings and private correspondence with other institutions, he chronicles for the first time in detail the reshaping of higher education in Scotland by which "monotechs" such as the colleges of teacher training found that 100 years of independence was not sustainable. Now every student of education is a student of a university and the age-old debates about the balance between the academic and professional components of courses are pursued in a new setting.

In the 1980s Moray House was foremost in the campaign to develop strong centres of professional education outwith the universities.

The Council for National Academic Awards not only offered degree-granting powers but forms of validation unheard of in universities. Although finance was tight, the Scottish Office kept the remaining colleges of education viable, along with the other "central institutions" which were held up as models of efficiency in resources compared with the London-funded universities.

But early in the Nineties the CNAA lost its UK role as polytechnics became universities, and there was pressure to associate teacher education more closely with universities, on the English model. The problem with the link between Moray House and Heriot-Watt, by which student teachers received Heriot-Watt degrees, was that everyone in the media (apart from The TESS, as Kirk rightly notes) assumed that association would soon lead to merger.

Instead, Moray House found itself ignored by the authorities at the Riccarton campus. Having remained financially independent, the college convinced the new Scottish Higher Education Funding Council of the need to invest in its city-centre buildings, whereas one reason for the Heriot-Watt link had been the possibility of moving to Riccarton. Resentments on both sides piled up, and Moray House was affronted by Heriot-Watt's refusal to allow it to make promotions to professor and reader.

To Kirk the position had become untenable, although Heriot-Watt saw only problems needing solution. By the mid-Nineties the funding regime had also turned against small institutions. Moray House depended on a safety net which the SHEFC was due to reduce. Kirk said he was paid to make the college not just survive but flourish, and so he embarked on talks with Sir Stewart Sutherland, Edinburgh's principal, who saw the advantages of adding a teacher-training faculty to the University.

The merger was promulgated as opening up educational opportunities, but it was driven by financial imperatives. Kirk accepts there was "a degree of callousness" in disengaging from Heriot-Watt, but it was in a "climate in which institutional self-interest had to be pursued with determination."

The partners are well suited. Moray House, especially in research, has a new lease of life, and Kirk, dean of the education faculty until this summer and now a vice-principal, deserves much of the credit for realising that his long-held views about autonomy had to change.

His book confirms that he is a better advocate than a diplomat. No doubt Heriot-Watt would tell a different story but it will probably let bygones be bygones. Kirk has revealed how principles and pettiness go hand in hand in high places.

"Moray House and the Road to Merger," 88pp. Dunedin Academic Press, pound;14.95. Willis Pickard isformer editor of The TES Scotland.

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