I DON’T hold a candle for either the SNP or the Scottish Government, although during my five years as Commissioner for Fair Access I found ministers and officials were sensible and committed. On the big question of independence I have no say, because I live in London, although as someone brought up a few miles from the Border (on the wrong side) the prospect of Berwick and Kelso being in different countries again fills me with dread.

But to say that the Scottish Government’s record on education has been a failure, which is now regarded by many critics as a fact, is unfair. Two examples.

First, Professor William Wardle recently argued (Letters, August 3) that what ailed Scottish higher education was Government interference. The truth is you can’t take the state out of higher education because too great a public interest is at stake. One way or the other it will be the dominant player. In England ministers and the Office for Students, chaired by a chum of Boris Johnson, interfere with universities to an unprecedented degree – on "free speech", ie combating supposed left-wing "woke" culture; on degrees (too many firsts and two-ones); on entry standards (no money for students whose entry grades are below those specified by ministers); on courses (if graduates don’t get well-paid-enough jobs courses will be culled). Nothing like this happens in Scotland.

A linked argument is that Scottish universities are underfunded because they are dependent on state funding and can’t charge fees (for Scottish domiciled students) and that their international standing is threatened – for which there isn’t the slightest evidence in terms of their share of competitive research funding, attractiveness to students, league tables or anything else. Of course, as a university professor I think universities should be better funded. I’m sure doctors feel the same about hospitals. But fees are not a panacea. Since super-high fees were introduced in England (the highest in any public higher education system in the world) more than a decade ago the income they bring universities has been eroded year by year because the maximum they are allowed by the UK Government to charge hasn’t kept up with inflation – not surprisingly because the loans English students get to pay fees are provided by tax payers in the first place and a large chunk has to be written off.

The second example is last week's outcry about the widening of the poverty-related attainment gap in National and Higher results, again seized on as evidence of the Scottish Government’s "failure" ("Attainment gap grows as pandemic hits poorer pupils", The Herald, August 10). But any comparison with last year is invalid. In 2021 grades were assessed by teachers, probably more accurately because they are better equipped to assess the potential of their students. This year there has been a return to traditional exams, and a deliberately-engineered reduction in grades. Of course, there is likely to have been a widening of the attainment gap because of Covid’s reverse Matthew principle of "from those who had least, the most has been taken away". It’s happened in health and jobs so it’s unlikely education has been spared the effects of this greater inequality.

It would be nice to be able to get back to a calm, considered, (proper) evidence-based way of doing politics and public administration, rather than the contrived hysteria of knee-jerk reactions predicated on everything the Government has done is wonderful or is a complete failure.

Sir Peter Scott, Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Studies, University College, London.


ANOTHER year, another attempt by those such as Mike Smith to justify slaughtering native birds in Scotland ("Why a successful grouse season is vital for rural Scotland", Agenda, The Herald, August 12). The same old story – how could rural Scotland possibly function without slaughtering red grouse, even in places where the species is nowhere to be seen? In a summer where Highly Pathological Avian Influenza has decimated multiple and varied species of wild birds, are red grouse thought to be exempt? Even without any evidence of transmission to humans, the possibility would appear much likelier if wild birds were shot and actually eaten – “healthy game meat” Mr Smith calls it, despite the birds being riddled with lead shot and served up in posh restaurants.

If terribly exciting activities such as off-road driving, hiking, canoeing and canyoning cannot be accomplished without shooting then perhaps Scotland all year round will indeed be the desolate, unspoiled, heathland we outdoor types all know and love.

Bernard Zonfrillo, Glasgow.


EXPERTS, as you call them, have predicted that Troon could be under water in 20 years ("Troon ‘under water’ in 20 years", The Herald, August 10).

Are we to infer that for some reason Troon, alone of all coastal places, would be affected by rising sea level, or is it just that the experts who have commented don’t want to intrude on the business of other consultants who, when paid to do so, will make predictions about other specific places, in the hope that nobody thinks of making obvious extrapolations?

The prediction you have reported seems to parallel the announcement of the foundering of the Titanic by the headline "Aberdeen man lost at sea".

Robin Dow, Rothesay.


MY wife and I have just spent a lovely sunny afternoon cycling around the country roads around Neilston. However, our nerves were occasionally shredded by impatient car drivers overtaking at blind corners, before dips in the road and passing too close to us.

Sometimes we all need to chill.

Allan McDougall, Neilston.


I ENJOYED Alan Simpson's review of names, potentially rude, or entertaining depending on one’s woke affinity or belly-laugh proclivity ("Carry on Dick Turpin, your name is safe from the wokes", The Herald, August 12), but was disappointed at the absence of the daddy of them all, exemplified by PM Margaret Thatcher’s recognition of her loyal deputy and Leader of the Lords, Willie Whitelaw, when she declared that “every prime minister needs a Willie”.

Growing up in the 1940s one was sheltered from any misinterpretation with the Arthur Ransome books, and the adventures of his Swallows and Amazons youngsters, John, Susan, Roger and Titty (oops).

In more recent years I heard a fragrant matron admit that she thought Willie Nelson, the American country musician, was an illegal wrestling hold.

R Russell Smith, Largs.