Top-up 'source' is sheer fiction

20th February 2004 at 00:00
David Caldwell says it is mistaken to assume that Scottish universities have jumped the gun on tuition fees

The "informed sources" on which you based your report "Universities 'jumped the gun' over fees" (FE Focus, February 6) are unfortunately very badly informed sources.

First, the suggestion that the universities' bid for additional funding is "mere assertion" and that "there seems to be no substance behind the pound;100 million bid" reflects both prejudice and ignorance on the part of your source.

In fact the universities have prepared a carefully reasoned case setting out the specific purposes for which extra funding would be used, the amounts needed for each of these purposes and the benefits that will accrue to Scotland as a result of this investment.

Second, it is not credible that, as one of your sources tells you, the Scottish Executive "believes that the universities have come up with a figure of pound;100 million simply because it represents the normal 10 per cent ratio of Scottish to English spending and is therefore the expected allocation from the pound;1 billion English universities".

Even if we had used this method of calculation, we would not have used a ratio of 10 per cent, since Scottish higher education represents about 12 per cent of the UK total. Our calculation is based on the investment needed to enable Scottish higher education institutions to play their part in meeting the Executive's policy priorities.

What happens in England cannot be ignored, but it was never the determining factor. Third, the attribution to a university principal of the view that "the universities are left wondering what to spend it (an extra pound;102 million) on", is misleading. I know of no principal who would have any difficulty in identifying ways in which the additional allocation to their institution would be used efficiently and effectively.

The only reason a principal might have for wondering how to spend the money is that the total need is even greater and difficult choices would still have to be made.

Fourth, the statement, attributed to further education colleges, that they "have suggested that the universities may be 'jumping the gun' in taking a premature stand six years before any funding changes are required to deal with the extra income English universities will receive", is both inaccurate and troubling.

It is inaccurate not only in suggesting that the case made by the universities depends on comparisons with England which, as I have already stated, it does not, but also as a factual account of what is happening in England. Extra funding is already flowing to English universities as a result of the outcome of the 2002 spending review, and if the Higher Education Bill becomes law the additional fee income will start to flow in 2006 - two years, not six!

The troubling part is the fact that these remarks are attributed to the FE colleges collectively. If they are correctly attributed, it is deeply disappointing since we value the good working relationship that exists in Scotland between the higher and further education sectors and want to see it strengthened.

That is more difficult to achieve if there is a lack of trust between the sectors, and trust is put at risk if one sector lobbies against the other, particularly if it is done on the basis of inaccurate and incomplete information. The HE sector has welcomed the substantial increases in spending on FE in recent years and has never argued that they were undeserved.

In order to correct the misleading picture sketched in your story last week, let me emphasise that Scottish higher education makes no claim to be automatically entitled to additional funding. We have built up a case, based on solid evidence, for additional investment for particular purposes which will deliver a substantial return to learners in Scotland and to the Scottish economy and society: modernisation of learning facilities, research excellence, effective knowledge transfer and widening opportunities for participation.

These purposes are closely aligned with the policy priorities of the Executive itself, with which we have been happy to work on the HE review.

We share the Executive's belief in the value of evidence-based analysis and policy-making, and we will continue to make our case by rational argument.

It is absurd for your source to apply the word "self-defeating" to the presentation of a reasoned case. What deserves to be self-defeating is your source's distortion and misrepresentation of that case.

David Caldwell is director of Universities Scotland.

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