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  • Ian Ritchie : Business AM

Ancient universities need a degree of modernisation

Our great institutions must drop some ludicrous practices if they want to compete

THE PAST FEW DECADES have seen fierce debates about the privatisation of public services such as electricity, gas and transportation. Some, such as the power utilities, seem to have survived the transition well, while others, such as the rail network… well, let’s just say the jury is still out.

One area of public provision which has attracted relatively little debate has been the university sector. Unlike the London Underground, nobody seems to ever talk about privatising Britain ’s universities. Actually, it would make no sense, as Britain’s universities are already private, self-governing, organisations, operating under a variety of different governance models.

Scotland’s 'ancient' universities have a somewhat quaint form of corporate governance. The Principal and senior management team report to the university court, and the chairman of the court is the Rector, elected by the student body. The students of St Andrews, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh regularly get a chance to exhibit their sense of imagination, or, it seems, their sense of humour. As a result, those key Scottish knowledge businesses with turnovers of a couple of hundred million or so, get stand-up comics, premier league footballers, or TV chiefs, imposed on them as chairman of the board.

Other universities operate under Royal Charters or as public corporations. Their management systems are more regular, although they often still place a great deal of power in the hands of the academic staff as a whole.

You would think that this diversity would create a wide degree of competition. After all, the various private schools in Scotland decide what fees they will charge, and how many students they will take. But no such liberty is available to self-governing universities, which have their fees and numbers set for them by central government. St Andrews University, for example, has just been fined £175,000 for the 'crime' of attracting too many students in the wake of Prince William’s arrival.

Glasgow Caledonian has also been fined, which is even more bizarre, since Caledonian makes strenuous efforts to encourage access to university from disadvantaged social groups. As this is in line with government policy you would think they would get a reward, not a punishment.

The price paid by the government to the universities for each student is the same, whether it is in an elite research institution with a low ratio of staff to students, or a former polytechnic which specialises in volume teaching. Students are apparently worth the same, whether they are doing medieval studies or optoelectronics. All of the universities tend to focus their efforts on the same 18-to-24-year-old volume market and do not generally address the need, in a fast changing world, to provide ongoing education products for life-long learning.

The universities have got into this position by concentrating their efforts on responding to the challenge set for them by the government to provide a higher education for up to 50% of the UK’s young population, a target that is now close to being met in Scotland . In the process, they have developed an overdependence on public funding and, inevitably, have concentrated less of their efforts on competing in wider markets. In contrast, further education colleges actually sell quite a large proportion of their courses to the private sector.

Its time we stopped the fiction that all universities are equal, and start to recognise and celebrate the differences. St Andrews, the 'Hogwarts' of the Scottish system, should be encouraged to market itself as an unique international experience, and we should not be overly concerned if as a result the Scottish proportion of their students drops to, say, 20%. Edinburgh should be challenged to become a truly elite research-focussed university, competitive in scale with any in Europe or North America . Heriot-Watt, which already has many more distance learning students around the world than it has on campus, should be encouraged to export Scottish higher education products aggressively around the world.

The post-1992 universities, the former polytechnics, need to concentrate on quality teaching for local economic needs.

Last, but not least, we need at least one high quality postgraduate business school in Scotland capable of competing with the best in Europe.

Something should be done about the bizarre structure of governance in the ancient universities. Mind you, some folks thought this 30 years ago and elected a rather intense young student as Edinburgh University’s rector. A young man called Gordon Brown.

I wonder whatever happened to him.

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