Scotland's merger crisis

A plan to bring together the funding councils for higher and further education north of the border has met with strong opposition, says Mike Brown
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A furious row has broken out in Scotland about a plan to merge the separate funding councils for further and higher education. Universities and colleges have united in accusing the Scottish Executive of trying to introduce a centralised planning council by stealth. A seemingly technical reform to bring the two sectors together and create a seamless route of learning has touched off fears that the proposal is a charter for government control.

A furious row has broken out in Scotland about a plan to merge the separate funding councils for further and higher education. Universities and colleges have united in accusing the Scottish Executive of trying to introduce a centralised planning council by stealth. A seemingly technical reform to bring the two sectors together and create a seamless route of learning has touched off fears that the proposal is a charter for government control.

Principals are adamant that this is a bad idea and are campaigning against it. Professor Duncan Rice, Principal of the University of Aberdeen, says there is no evidence that centralised planning would be anything other than damaging in an increasingly competitive global environment. "All the evidence points to planning being most effective at institutional level where there is freedom to determine educational provision in the light of market conditions, with a gentle steer, where appropriate, from the funding council," he says. "It is unnecessary and undesirable to change the traditional arm's-length relationship between Government and universities."

The plan emanates from the Scottish Executive which wants to create "a smart successful Scotland" to underpin future economic growth and prosperity. Ministers have long considered a single funding council disbursing the Scottish parliament's £1.4bn budget for further and higher education as a logical corollary of this policy.

Universities and colleges had accepted the merging of the funding councils for higher and further education as inevitable. But they had been looking to the new council to provide efficiencies of scale and a leaner bureaucracy while maintaining business as usual. The draft of the legislation quickly ended such hopes.

At the regular biannual meeting of Universities Scotland and the Association of Scottish Colleges in Edinburgh the hot topic for discussion was the iniquity of the new draft Bill. Although no one went in to the meeting with an agreed statement in mind, the 10 principals (five from each sector) quickly found common grounds for concern. This was to be no mere administrative reorganisation, they agreed: the government was planning a funding council with much greater powers to intervene and manage the activities of colleges and universities.

The joint statement they wrote was the first the two sectors had ever produced. Emphatically rejecting the Scottish Executive's interventionist proposals, they called for a "smart strategic funding body" to be created that was much smaller than the sum of the existing councils and their executive.

The statement went on to demand that the new council leave detailed planning and management to individual colleges and universities. "It is the universities and colleges which are the delivering agents," it said. "They are the best judges at operational level. Well-governed and well-managed institutions are capable of responding to the needs of the markets in which they operate more quickly and more effectively than any central planning agency could do."

A plainly rattled Executive responded by putting the best possible spin on the rebuff: it had intended to prompt collaboration between further education and the universities, it replied through gritted teeth, and it was encouraging to see that this was happening.

Sir Muir Russell, principal of Glasgow University, agrees with Professor Rice that the funding council's touch should not be made any heavier. Glasgow University would like to be left to get on with delivering what ministers want, using its own experience and expertise.

Sir Muir cites with approval the Greater Opportunity of Access and Learning with Schools (Goals) programme, run by universities in the city to widen access. Goals has been successful in delivering ministerial objectives without any detailed funding- council intervention. "This is an example of ministerial aspiration being interpreted - and delivered - by local, on-the-ground knowledge," he says.

At Abertay University, which has a good record of smoothing the progression from college qualifications to degree courses, principal Professor Bernard King fears that the new funding council will go on playing "the same old game" even though, globally post-school education is changing. He warns against paying lip-service to diversity without committing funding to promote it.

Scottish students agree with the principals. "This Bill is intended to merge the funding councils," says Ben Reilly, president of the Coalition of Higher Education Students in Scotland (Chess). "It should not subversively create a planning council."

Underpinning the detailed concerns are the contrasting historic anxieties of the institutions. The colleges, with vivid memories of being micro-managed by local authorities, have more recently moved towards university-style autonomy. The universities, perennially suspecting a Scottish Executive plot to limit their independence, are ever wary of any hint that they will be put in the same category as the colleges. "We have no interest in seeing the autonomy of universities reduced," says Mark Cummings of the Association of Scottish Colleges (ASC). "We aspire to university-level autonomy."

Into this febrile atmosphere of suspicion blundered the drafters of the proposed merger Bill. Seeking a convenient drafting term to bring together and categorise all the institutions, they concocted the ungainly portmanteau term 'Specified Tertiary Education Providers' or 'STEPs'.

Referring to each college and university as a 'STEP' proved an acronym toofar. In much the same way as the inadvertent exposure of a theatre's back-stage activities can distract the audience from the performance of the play, so the adoption of 'STEP' as a draftin convenience confused the debate. The STEP concept, with its ranking of institutions in four grades and references to admitting new and undefined 'tertiary education providers' in future, reopened old sores and created a flutter of alarmis headlines. There has also been concern over the use the new council might make of th existing Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework. The framework places all mainstream qualifications on a 12-point scale, enabling comparisons to be made and assisting students to transfer between sectors. But the process throws up anomalies and correcting them could be contentious, particularly correcting the funding anomaly between further and higher education courses.

Melanie Ward, President of NUS Scotland, says: "Students are often confused as to why courses that are comparable do not attract comparable funding. We believe funding should be driven by student need and not arbitrary funding mechanisms."

If the framework defines an HND qualification and the first two years of a university course as comparable, then why, as is often the case, is the funding lower for the HND course? If the new funding council were to address this anomaly, many suspect that the outcome would see financial support for university courses falling closer to levels for further education.

One unlikely response to the draft Bill has been the emergence of the institutions as protectors of the government's role. "We don't want ministers passing on their democratic powers to the new funding council," says Mark Cummings of the ASC. "We want ministers, not the funding council, to take bottom-line decisions such as the budget split between further and higher education." Contentious lobbying should be decided publicly, not in the unelected privacy of the funding council, he says: "Funding councils work best when acting as funding councils, not political animals."

The proposed power to require feasibility studies into mergers epitomises, for its critics, the interventionist spirit of the new legislation. Merger proposals, always a sensitive issue, have in the past come from the institutions themselves, albeit prompted by the financial regimes of the funding councils. The prospect of merger-by-directive is seen as potentially disruptive of morale and debilitating of resources. Intervention of this kind, along with a right for the council to demand meetings of governing bodies to discuss specific financial issues, is totally at odds with the institutions' demand for a minimalist funding council.

Universities and colleges are also clear that the funding council should not only represent government to the institutions, but also reflect the institutions' views to the government. "The funding council should not only be accountable to parliament as proposed, but also to the students and institutions," says Reilly, of Chess. Professor King of Abertay University agrees. "There must be a greater injection from the institutions into the funding council," he says.

Just how much attention has been given to the criticism of the proposals will become apparent when the updated version of the Bill is published later this year. One sign that the Scottish Executive is listening would be the dropping of the universally unpopular "tertiary" from the title of the new council. "Higher Education and Further Education Funding Council" scarcely scores for brevity, but at least everyone knows what it means. "The use of the word 'tertiary' appears to create a wholesale rebranding and reclassifying," says Russell. "Ministers would be well advised to move away from it."