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The choice is simple: elite universities or free classes for students. It’s time for Scotland to make up its mind

The University of Glasgow wears its egalitarian tradition proudly.

The idea that higher education should be open to all, regardless of background, is etched into its fabric.

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The Hetherington Building and the Sir Henry Jones Memorial Prize, awarded annually to the university’s top moral philosopher, bear the names of men who first pronounced that university education is not just for the gilded few, but for everyone with the brains to get there.

This proud past collided with its ambitious future last week. According to a new glossy 36-page brochure, the university’s vision for the year 2020 is to “enhance its position as one of the world’s great broad-based, research-intensive universities”. The price of this vision was to be found in the £20 million cuts over three years proposed on Wednesday.

History, classics, modern languages, social work and nursing departments, and the department of adult and continuing education -- which widens access to university for the poorest in society -- all face closure or merger. Budgets have been slashed and priorities are shifting. Compared to the world-class, grant-attracting departments of physics, chemistry, accounting and computer science, these departments are heading for extinction. And so, the heirs of Hetherington and Jones would argue, social mobility is sacrificed for excellence.

The rationale is simple and brutal: in these austere times, if a university wants to have a position on the world stage it has to focus on what it does best, at any cost.

Dr Tom Steele, a senior honorary research fellow at the university’s school of education, picked up the banner of widening access in an open letter. He wrote: “That the university ... should now consider terminating its adult education provision, of which it should be justifiably proud, is a sad betrayal of this tradition of a democratic intellect and of the university’s civic responsibility to the people of Glasgow, which it could well live to regret.”

Funding cuts of up to 10% are forcing all Scotland’s 21 universities and higher education colleges to sharply focus their raison d’etre. Is their primary function to be an agent of social justice and mobility, or do they need to concentrate on competing with Oxford and Cambridge and the US Ivy League universities in research and innovation? Do we focus on equality or quality?

“There is a massive tension between the social inclusion agenda on one hand and the global research agenda on the other,” said Professor John Field, co-director of the Centre for Research in Lifelong Learning at the University of Stirling. “Glasgow, like a number of universities in the UK and internationally, is clearly focusing on the areas in which it has a reputation for high research standards. They’ll be pushing into areas where they will get high fees from overseas students or in research grants.”

But there is also an expectation on these world-class universities to welcome students from poor backgrounds. In England this dual, sometimes competing, expectation came to the fore last week. The Coalition Government confirmed that if Oxbridge failed to widen access to disadvantaged students the universities could be fined £500,000.

In Scotland, the National Union of Students wants an independent body to widen access. Scottish students do not pay tuition fees, unlike English ones, but the number of disadvantaged students at university has increased south of the Border and is stagnant here. In 2008-09, 3.72% of people in the most deprived areas of Scotland were at university, not much different from the peak of 3.75% in 2005-06.

For Liam Burns, NUS Scotland’s president, this is not good enough. Social engineering via positive discrimination should be considered.

“I think we should be honest about our priorities,” he said. “At the end of the day, the point of the university has changed. If you look at when only 5% of the population went, that was about knowledge, discovery, pushing boundaries, people talked about the crème de la crème. That’s not the purpose of universities now -- it is about social mobility and people changing their lives. The reality is you need that bit of paper to get into better jobs with greater earning potential and influence. So we want as many people to get one as possible, at the expense of quality if necessary.”

He added: “It is not good enough to say that the University of the West of Scotland does access, while Glasgow gets to go off and be a centre of excellence. There is a capital that comes with a degree from Glasgow that leads to the best jobs.”

Naturally, the Scottish Government believes quality and equality are both achievable in the face of tighter budgets. In fact, according to Education Secretary Michael Russell, one breeds the other.

He said: “I do not think the fact that Scotland’s universities deliver tens of thousands of high-quality graduates into the world of work every year and carry out not just world-leading, but world-beating, research is unconnected to the long-standing belief in Scotland that access to education should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.”

The reality is less straightforward. Acting on guidance from the Government to “protect research excellence”, the last round of funding for Scottish universities saw the newer, less-research intensive universities -- with more poorer students -- take the biggest cut in funding. In contrast Edinburgh University, Scotland’s top institution, saw its research grant actually rise.

With a Holyrood election in May the other Scottish political parties are also sharpening their vision of university priorities. The Conservatives believe “universities are there to be centres of excellence”. The Liberal Democrats plan to make “mobility through education” a key part of their manifesto, but excellence of university education should not be compromised. Labour, the party which has spearheaded the drive to increase graduate numbers, said more could be done to widen access, a principle that must be protected.

Within the universities themselves the rhetoric is similar to the Government’s. Glasgow University corporate communications director Susan Stewart said criticism from politicians, lecturers and students over proposals that appear to be pursuing excellence at the expense of access are “pretty dubious”.

The university’s priority was “to be inclusive, fulfil our civic duty to the city and encourage those who would not normally think about uni. We are proof there is no contradiction. We are one of the research elite and we also educate a significant number of first-generation uni students”.

Stewart admitted areas that don’t fit in with the university’s strategic vision would be threatened, but that access would not be threatened as a result. The adult education courses under threat, she said, were not those that normally attract people from non-traditional backgrounds.

The University of St Andrews is another elite university facing questions on its priorities. Stephen Magee, vice-principal for external relations, admitted that in the face of budget cuts “things that are not core to the university’s mission will gradually be tightened and in some cases removed altogether”.

Magee says each university should concentrate on what it is best at, be it part-time courses for disadvantaged students or a world-class philosophy department.

“We put too much pressure on individual institutions to be equally good at everything,” said Magee. “We all have responsibility for social inclusion, but differently. The sector has to differentiate, not individual institutions. We can’t all be equally good, otherwise we’d all be average. And we cannot aspire to be average. I mean, how hopeless would that be?”

    Comment

By Liam Burns, President NUS Scotland

“World leading”, “cutting edge”, “research intensive”. All phrases that universities proudly wear as badges of honour. None of these things are bad from a student’s perspective, but they certainly don’t sum up for me the real purpose of our higher education sector.  

30 years ago that purpose was quite clear. Only a tiny proportion of the population ever stepped foot on a campus and then were all but guaranteed a profession of either large wealth or significant influence, or both.

Universities were seen to produce the high rollers of society. Acting as epicentres of knowledge and innovation, their research provision set them apart form other education routes such as colleges and polytechnics.

Rightly, in my opinion, times have changed. Student numbers have drastically increased with many institutions gaining university status. The gatekeeper to social mobility that was that bit of paper that proved your graduate status and opened the door to ‘graduate’ jobs became accessible to many more people.

It may not be right, but the social capital that comes with being a graduate is huge. Just look at how many of our politicians, law professionals, chief executives and the like who often wield above average wealth and power come from a graduate background.

University should never be seen as the default option in life, but it does great injustice to ignore the fact that higher education is often the key to a better standard of living. And so if you asked me what I would rather see in a tight spending environment, less money to admit the same numbers of students or fewer students with better funded universities -- I’m quite clear the latter is not an option.  Of course, that is a false question to pose and actually politicians should absolutely be prioritising education so that question doesn’t have to be asked.

How we fund our universities and colleges is, and will continue to be, a highly charged debate in the run up to the Scottish Parliament elections. But the much more important question for decision makers must start with why we fund them in the first place.

“Access”, “social mobility” and “participation” should be the focus of what epitomises our higher education system.

 

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