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Higher education and the case for consistency

The First Minister depicts the situations at Glasgow and Strathclyde universities in starkly contrasting lights.

While Alex Salmond accuses Professor Anton Muscatelli, Principal of Glasgow University, of being at war with his staff and students over proposed cuts, he describes his opposite number at Strathclyde, Professor Jim McDonald, in an altogether more flattering light.

Mr Salmond said Prof McDonald was taking his university “on a fantastic course”, in aspiring to become an “ MIT on the Clyde”, even if this vision involves cutting a number of social sciences and humanities courses. The vision was challenged last week when MIT’s Emeritus Professor of Linguistics, the world-renowned Noam Chomsky, attacked Strathclyde’s plans to cut courses in music, geography, community education and sociology as “very odd”. At MIT itself, such courses are regarded as an important part of a rounded education.

Now staff at Strathclyde University have written to Mr Salmond pointing up his inconsistency and claiming that the proposals for Strathclyde are equally controversial. It is worrying for the future of higher education in Scotland if courses are to be axed, not because they are educationally inferior but primarily because they do not attract much by way of research funding.

Scottish university principals have expressed fears that the Scottish Government will find it progressively more difficult to fill the funding gap and retain free higher education. (Services competing for the public purse, such as the NHS, schools and other council services, provide universal benefit, whereas only around 45% of school leavers go on to university.) This is not necessarily an argument for introducing graduate contributions but if Scottish universities are to compete and thrive in the increasingly global market for degrees, without extensive rationalisation, they will need greater public support. Otherwise they will slide down the rankings and lose their most talented staff to better-paying English institutions.

The situation was made more difficult by the revelation yesterday that English universities will be charging average fees of £8650 a year, rather than the £7500 anticipated. This leaves a wider gap than the £150 million a year estimated by the Scottish Government. Time for all to put on their thinking caps.

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