The HE Debate: Where next for...devolved systems?

04 Mar 2015

Professor Andrea Nolan, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Edinburgh Napier University

The UK higher education debate viewed from the perspective of a Scottish institution can seem both distinct and detached. Sixteen years of devolution have naturally delivered policy divergence in devolved matters but today the higher education debate is centred in different territory north and south of the border while the sector itself remains essentially unified in a UK-wide ecosystem comprising similar institutional models doing similar kinds of things and sharing significant infrastructure.

Most conspicuously there is no sense of closure in the fees and funding debate in England.  In Scotland we have stopped discussing it probably for the foreseeable future.  It remains to be seen how the parties will position themselves ahead of the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, but Scottish Labour signalled in October 2014 that rejecting tuition fees was now their direction of travel, in line with the clear stance of the present Scottish government.

The near acceptance which has emerged around public funding of higher education has shifted the debate to how those funds are used and to what end: sustainable economic growth, social justice, efficiency and outcomes, in contrast to deregulation and marketization.

On key UK wide HE issues, the debate we have in Scotland is now quite distinct, reflecting a different political centre of gravity as well as the characteristics of a small country which permit conversations to develop in particular ways.   This is true of the debate around widening access; around the post-16 education continuum; around higher education’s place in the innovation ecosystem and how we translate the world class research conducted in our universities into sustainable economic growth.  There is a distinctive approach to growing Scotland’s international role and profile and the interplay with higher education and innovation, while Scotland has developed a distinctive enhancement led-approach to quality. We also have an ongoing debate on higher education governance which has no real counterpart in England and Wales, and there appears to be an appetite, exemplified by the proposal to introduce a “Scottish Business Pledge” in the 2014 Programme for Government to use non-legislative means to promote a distinctive approach to areas such as employment practice where legislative powers remain reserved.

It is expected that the next Westminster Parliament will act quickly to introduce legislation to devolve further powers to the Scottish Parliament.  What those powers will be is perhaps less clear.  While we have the Report of the Smith Commission and the draft legislation published by the present UK administration in January, this may not be the ultimate outcome.  The uncertainty over the general election outcome holds out a range of possibilities around further devolution potentially linked to parallel reforms to other aspects of the constitution. New powers over taxation and expenditure could offer a partial mechanism for greater political distinctiveness to translate into greater economic distinctiveness and a wider application of distinctive Scottish policy levers and solutions.

Some might see the logic of devolution and the trends which are already evident as implying that the UK HE debate is already well on the way to evolving into separate debates within which there are common issues and interests but which are disconnected in the substance of detail.

This view overlooks the other notable post-devolution trend highlighted above: that our institutions and the business models through which higher education is delivered have changed rather little – market forces and competition having been more influential than devolution in the developments which have occurred.  It also overlooks the potential richness and mutual relevance of thinking through and debating the approach to broadly similar challenges from different perspectives.

Immigration law and its effect on international student recruitment is a case in point.  Scotland pioneered the post-study work visa under First Minister Jack McConnell.  The initiative known then as “Fresh Talent” was driven from a Scottish perspective relating to demographic projections and concern about meeting the future talent needs of the Scottish economy.  But as an instrument for attracting international students and retaining highly skilled internationally mobile workers it clearly had wider resonance and value and was introduced UK-wide.

The two-year post-study work visa was abolished by the present UK coalition government as part of the range of measures to reduce net migration which have mistakenly been extended to target higher education students.  We may be about to come full-circle on the issue.  The Smith Commission recommended that the possibility of reintroducing such a scheme in Scotland should be a matter for discussion between the UK and Scottish governments and the Scottish Education Secretary recently confirmed that such discussions are indeed getting underway.  The proposition is, again, that Scotland has distinctive needs in terms of its economy and labour force requirements.  We may however be about to simply refresh our awareness that offering international students the possibility of post-study employment in their country of study brings wide benefits which are as realisable in the rest of the UK as they are in Scotland and in the other countries around the world which share the policy.

This commentary could have been entitled “The HE debate: where next for the HE debate”.  Looking to the period beyond the general election, a key issue that the next Westminster government and all of the administrations across the UK will need to consider is the basic long-term effectiveness and competitiveness of our higher education systems – thinking not from an insular perspective but from the perspective of seeking out, identifying and embracing best practice, embracing innovation in delivering teaching and research and meeting the aspirations of future students.

We know that other countries are in various ways investing and innovating heavily to develop their higher education systems to make them more economically effective as attractors and shapers of talent, to develop clusters of research excellence and drive innovation and to make them more attractive to international students (including through post-study work opportunities).

So we should capitalise on our diversity within the UK and the fact that our institutions share so much in common, to strengthen our competitiveness through collaboration and by learning from each other.  We can also raise our game in terms of learning from higher education systems beyond these shores and thinking about the issues which confront all of us less exclusively in terms of our immediate pre-occupations – which are often rooted in our local or national political and economic contexts – and more in terms of the global debate.