LET'S FACE IT – Scotland doesn’t really lead the world in anything much. Our sports teams are mediocre, we have almost no globally significant businesses, and our economic performance is sluggish.
But there is one field in which Scotland really does lead the world – in the performance of our universities. In the league table of world universities there are five Scottish institutions in the world’s top 200. For a population of five million people this is a phenomenal score, much better proportionally than Canada’s six, Australia’s eight or France’s four. Scotland has more elite Universities per head of population than any other country on earth.
So maybe we should be asking the question – are we actually doing far too well? Is it appropriate that we have the single best higher education system in the world.
With a limited amount of national wealth to spend, we have to make judgments about where our resources are to be directed. Walk around any Scottish university campus today and you cannot fail to be highly impressed by the quality and quantity of their estates. So, at a time where there is a permanent chronic shortage of hospital beds in our NHS, or where schools need to teach classes in portacabins, is it appropriate that the well-equipped lecture theatres and laboratories at our universities are empty and unused for more than half of the year?
The last PISA international league tables of school performance showed that Scotland has performed worse than ever against 34 other developed countries. Since 2006 Scotland has dropped from 11th to 26th in reading and from 11th to 24th in mathematics and there are 4000 fewer schoolteachers today than when the SNP came to government in 2007. The traditional view that Scottish education is one of the best in the world has long gone.
Of course, our high quality universities are excellent at attracting international students, bringing fees that are welcomed. And it's not just their money that is appreciated – most academics in science and engineering find that international students arrive with higher skills in mathematics than Scottish ones. In fact many Scottish universities find that they need to provide remedial courses for domestic students to bring them up to an equivalent standard.
To justify their position in society – and their funding – universities have made a pact with Government – if supported they will transform the economy; and there is no doubt that a highly skilled workforce is essential to a modern society and that our university system contributes a core part of this task.
But this calculation is now beginning to fail with regard to international students. The UK Home Office has been discouraging non-EU applicants – the number of Indian students coming here to study has dropped by 60% since 2012 – and has curtailed the right to work after graduation. The pioneering ‘Fresh Talent’ post-study visa for Scotland was arbitrarily cancelled by the Westminster Government in 2012. And Brexit is likely to mean that restrictions imposed on non-EU students may well be extended to EU ones after 2019.
If we are to maintain the best university system in the world then there should be a good reason to do so. By discouraging international students from coming here and then forbidding them from working in Scotland afterwards it means that Scotland’s world-leading universities will make a significantly poorer contribution to our economic performance.
It looks like we need to urgently increase the quality of our own education system – all of it – and not just rely on our ‘elite’ institutions.