Debate regarding centralised university funding has reignited, following Enterprise Minister Keith Brown’s recent call for the review of Scotland’s higher education agencies.
Mr Brown and other members of the Scottish Government are floating the idea of abolishing the Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council, which itself invests over £1 billion each year in universities for research and innovation.
The government has called for the creation of a national board aimed at “aligning” the policies and goals of these agencies.
It has further emerged that the government is considering entirely replacing these agencies with the board and transforming it into a quango, which would find its senior executives in governmental appointees.
Since the Holyrood election in May, the Scottish National Party (SNP) government has taken to the task of reforming Scotland’s higher education sector.
Reviewing and evaluating the sector comprised “phase one” of the “Ministers’ decisions to achieve stronger governance across a coherent enterprise and skills system; deliver flexible regional support; promote an open and international economy; streamline innovation support; align the functions of Scotland’s learning and skills agencies, and develop the right digital and enterprise support,” according to the government’s Enterprise and Skills Review.
Concerns have been raised regarding what such a decline in economic autonomy would mean for Scottish universities, and how the decision would change the amount of funding the government earmarks to them.
While the University of St Andrews wished not to comment and maintains that these talks have yet to develop into actionable proposals, Universities Scotland aims to continue “working in partnership with the government.”
Alastair Sim, its chief executive, said Scottish universities should continue “working as autonomous charities”, and would like to ensure that they “are another force of initiative in society and not being brought in to a directive relationship from government.
“There’s still work to do to make sure we have the right range of options for people to progress through learning and skills development in a way that suits them, when it suits them.”
Speaking for the Scottish Liberal Democrats at Holyrood, Tavish Scott has characterised the proposed board as an emerging “super-quango takeover” that would threaten university independence and intensify the control of education policy by distant bureaucracy.
Concurring, the Scottish Labour Party spokesperson Iain Gray stated that, “after the disaster of the SNP’s centralisation of colleges, you would think the government would shy away from trying to centralise control of the critical Higher Education sector. Instead the Nationalists seem set to push on with more reforms that nobody wants and the sector does not need.
“The Scottish Funding Council being under direct political control would be completely unacceptable, compromising the independence of our universities.
“Ministers should not be directing the funding of academic work.”
Delegating funding control to a more politicised body faces the risk of prioritising other areas of the economy, which may lead to a fall in university funding across Scotland.
The Scottish government offered the reassurance that these plans are still in the abstract: “Current boards will continue to perform their current roles as the process to set up the new statutory body gets under way. We’ll work closely with the boards as we develop proposals.”