University expansion row threatens SNP Government in higher education debate

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon spoke at the Glasgow Caledonian campus in New York City earlier this year.

Commentary by Professor John Robertson

Glasgow Caledonian University’s New York Campus has no degree students – ss this an important warning for the Scottish Government?

The Labour Party in Scotland, their media advisers, and BBC Scotland have been sniffing around the above story. Their determined campaign earlier this year to use alleged failures in the Scottish NHS, Police Scotland and in conflict with local authorities over teacher supply, seemed to have little effect on the SNP vote: Nothing seemed to stick to Nicola.

Professor John Robertson
Professor John Robertson

STV, in the same period, showed good market intelligence and were much more balanced and fair so as not to scunner their many ‘Yes’-supporting viewers.

This story and others about universities – especially the newer ones – rushing to set up overseas or London bases to try to exploit a market for fully-funded students are signs of an emerging crisis. I might be wrong, but I predict a tidal wave of failures, losses, closures and hopefully, of not-too-well reimbursed removals. SNP leaders have, naturally, found themselves on stage to welcome some of these “exciting new projects”. After 35 years in higher education, no word excites me less than “exciting”! Both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have been caught on stage with GCU looking mildly excited, in New York. If they become tainted with disaster, their internal advisers are to blame.

So to the SNP generally I say get right behind the Consultation Paper on a Higher Education Governance Bill and, in particular, its intent to democratise university leadership by greater inclusion of staff, students and trades unions on Court. Proper accountability in University Courts has in the past prevented so-called entrepreneurs in Higher Education from selling hard earned reputations for quality, rigour and ethics in order to fund short-termism, vanity projects and the downward spiral of mass commodification.


But, the consultation will be too late. There are signs of serious problems emerging now which Scottish Government chiefs will need to act on sooner.

Here are three current examples: First-up is Glasgow Caledonian University. Here is part of the BBC website report on Wednesday:

‘The BBC has learned that Glasgow Caledonian University has spent £5.6m developing an offshoot in Manhattan. But its application to the New York authorities for a licence to teach and award degrees has yet to be approved. Labour said the campus was “a very expensive white elephant”. University bosses insisted it would eventually repay the investment.’

Note the early arrival of a Labour Party in Scotland worm in a BBC statement, soon after the story emerges. By 1.15pm on Wednesday, Jackie Baillie MSP was part of an extended piece on Reporting Scotland, clearly implying Scottish Government neglect. Did Labour tell the BBC about it so as to give them a story, or did the BBC give it to Labour to get a quick response? Does it really matter anymore?


In second place and spookily similar to the GCU story, last July 28, the Independent posted:

University of South Wales’ London campus closes with no students after one year – at a cost of £750,000 to the taxpayer, say reports

A university in London has been forced to close its doors after just one year – because no students signed up to study for courses. The University of South Wales (USW) opened-up its London centre in the heart of the city’s Docklands last year at a cost of £300,000, promising to deliver a range of undergraduate, postgraduate, and professional courses in the fields of law and financial services, and information security. Now, though, having recruited four staff members, the institution has had to close after failing to spark any interest, shipping its resources back to South Wales. The university said it was relying on international students to help the venture take-off, but cited the Government’s toughening of visa regulations – which made it harder to recruit any foreign students – as being the reason why it has had to close two years earlier than anticipated.

In this report, note the allegation of ‘costs to the taxpayer’, the reliance on international students and the Government’s toughening of visa regulations as ‘the reason’. Like GCU, USW has no major funding streams beyond its undergraduate income which comes as suggested in the headline, from the taxpayer. No University manager would ever admit to transfer of these funds to invest in new enterprises because it would be illegal to have done so. Yet, where did GCI get £5.6 million?

Remember that figure will be, like the estimate for Trident Renewal, a wee bit optimistic. How could USW risk £750 000 at the same time as closing one of its campuses in Wales? The good news for GCU Scotland is, if you Google GCU, you will find first the Grand Canyon University, really. To enable GCU Scotland to downsize, GCU USA will surely have unused, open-air, space for drop-in seminars or even senior staff offices, at a much lower rate than New York city-centre accommodation?

As for the excuse, blaming new government legislation, for falling applications, this legislation is not in place yet so is unlikely to be a factor. The risks further down the line, by no means certain to come to anything, could have been foreseen years before.


In third place and closest to my heart is the University of the West of Scotland or UWS. UWS unlike USW still has plans for London. This piece in The Herald on September 30 was fierce and like the GCU story above smells a little of the Labour Party in Scotland and is, of course, in a newspaper with ‘previous’,  having attacked the statements of UWS Principal Mahoney on student fees and UWS Professor Deuchar on Police Scotland’s stop and search policy.

Scottish university’s London campus is “vanity project”

A SCOTTISH university has been accused of embarking on “vanity projects” just weeks before it opens a new campus in London. The attack by lecturers’ leaders follows moves by the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) to open a centre in the London Borough of Southwark, to the south of the Thames. The university is also considering a campus in the United Arab Emirates. The new London campus has been planned to capitalise on the lucrative market in international students, who pay thousands of pounds for courses in the UK. The first courses available will be in business and nursing. The move has provoked particular anger because it comes just weeks after it emerged the university has drawn up proposals to relocate its campus in Hamilton to a motorway business park 12 miles east of Glasgow.

Mary Senior, UCU Scotland official, said: “It is absurd that the university is opening a new campus in London at the same time as they are considering moving out of Hamilton. London is well served with its own institutions that offer first class opportunities to students studying there. “The university should be concentrating on fulfilling its responsibilities to the population of the west of Scotland, including the people of Hamilton, rather than embarking on the building of vanity projects hundreds of miles away.”

Note here, as with USW, the suggestion of neglect of home students to invest in non-Scottish projects of uncertain provenance. Now, as you might know, I’m an employee of UWS. I’m currently on sick leave and retire in January coming. I love UWS and will continue to do so after I retire. All of us who work there and have worked there have been part of a glorious campaign to bring higher education to a mass population formerly neglected. I want the best for UWS. For that reason, I’d like to see it think again about its internationalisation strategy.


Back to the Scottish Government. These little crises and others, perhaps worse, to follow mean – I say – wake up! Before the consultation is complete, start engaging now, by sending local MSPs into all of Scotland’s universities to find out what’s going on and to demand to see the books. This can’t wait until the consultation is complete. Otherwise, the Labour Party in Scotland, via Reporting Scotland every night, will use each and every revelation to drives spikes into the Scottish Government’s next campaign. The SNP are robust I know,  but tying them to the extravagant failures of a small undemocratic elite might be more damaging than you think.

Now, I know three stories might not mean anything too much….or maybe it will. I know of other comparable developments across UK Higher Education but cannot substantiate them, yet.

At the same time, the new legislation to bring universities into the democratic sphere must be pushed hard. Here’s a short piece from a longer, informative article in the National newspaper, on October 6:

UNIVERSITY reforms will make Scotland’s institutions more democratic and must be supported, according to a leading think-tank. The Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill was introduced in June, aimed at making the country’s higher education system “modern, inclusive and accountable”. The legislation would establish new regulations for the appointment of the chair of a university’s governing body and allow ministers control over their payments and allowances.

It also stipulates that two students nominated by their union and two staff members from trade unions must be elected to governing bodies, and broadens the definition of “academic freedom” to include “developing and advancing new ideas or innovative proposals”.

Nicola, Alex, they’ve already captured you enthusing about the New York campus! Get your story ready now. Get them before they get you…

Professor John Robertson, Ayr, 28th October 2015



  1. There is at least one example of getting out while you can. Edinburgh U planned a Bahrain campus but pulled out after pressure from staff and students objecting to the extremely poor record of the Bahraini elite on human rights. I see GCU have a campus in Oman.

    • There are several universities that have campuses in the Middle and Far East – GCU being one. I would worry more about standards and reputation as they are often money spinners with little academic scrutiny from the UK.

  2. I found it ironic that the same Jackie Baillie who helped push the trams fiasco. Used phrases like vanity project and white elephant! Oh the irony ma lord.

    BBC all over this like a rash. Well they tried smearing, they tried attacking Police Scotland and then the hospitals. This is the latest BBC propaganda exercise. I think Mcquarrie must be crazy to think that noone knows he is running the Labour campaign in the media.

  3. Thanks for the information John, but I’m afraid it doesn’t matter if the story is true or false. As you know, the unionist political parties, aided by their acolytes in the media, led of course by their cheerleader the B.B.C, will exploit any perceived weakness in the S.N.P Scottish Government.The sheer absurdity, and hypocrisy, especially of the Labour Party in Scotland, is very rarely highlighted, and after years of campaigning for an independent Scotland, I still find it difficult to understand the mind set of these so-called “proud scots” who take pleasure in denigrating their country, and countrymen and women.
    In this case I just hope people who have influence with our Government’s thinking read your article, and heed your advice.

  4. Labour in Scotland only have about 20% of the vote. So who is McQuarrie talking to with all these Labour campaign bulletins?

    As far as the higher education goes. Universities need to concentrate on making the Scottish univrsities attractive to overseas students. They don’t need to move overseas to do that! They are not businesses, they are places of learning.
    I also think it’s very important that the majority of students come from Scotland. Otherwise their charactar is lost. A bit like Edinburgh Uni which has become a home counties university. Mind you if you hear an English acccent in Glasgow you think , tourist, in Edinburgh you say which mansion in Morningside do you live.

  5. Hope you’re on the mend John and feel better soon.

    Re GCU where did they get the £5.6 million from? Do they have that kind of money to flash around?

    US higher education is going through quite a few changes. I hear that colleges are getting more expensive, like here. Even the low-budget state ones. Maybe the GCU plan is to offer cheaper degrees for those currently priced out of the US market by operating a different model? More distance learning input from academics based in Scotland?

    I agree that one should be highly wary and sceptical, but I work for the OU, and we’re always hearing from our Principal how academe is now global, and that there are various competing institutions trying to replicate our distance-learning model.

  6. “..start engaging now, by sending local MSPs into all of Scotland’s universities to find out what’s going on and to demand to see the books.”

    Yes John, and then place that ‘value’ on the public sector balance sheet, especially the extensive asset wealth hidden away by Scotland’s elite ancient universities (buildings, investments etc.) and their art treasures. These places, as Big Jock suggests, are nowadays neither for educating Scots, or for nurturing future generations of Scots academics – see A few Union placemen on university boards will not change much if anything, that’s a weak ‘reform’; the whole sector needs radical reform, like many of Scotland’s institutions. Personally I favour a ‘Police Scotland’ solution, a single national university – that would save hundreds of millions annually by removing 19 HE institutions senior management team salaries and avoid endless faculty duplication, i.e. create a ‘National University of Scotland’, just like Singapore did after getting the powers to do so. Then we might finally get rid of the academic snobbery and concentrate on educating the folk who live here, all of them!

  7. Surely this story with its examples of universities setting up overseas makes the case for the Scottish Government’s bill on University Governance and the greater involvement of all groups in a university in the governance of the university.

    In the case of Edinburgh University cited above it was the very groups currently excluded from involvement of the running of the university who brought pressure to bear on the University’s plans for Bahrain.

    If these groups had been involved as the bill wants them to be then maybe the universities would have thought longer and harder about their plans.

    As far as where the money for GCU’s expansion into New York is concerned you have to bear in mind that GCU earns money by running courses in various parts of the world. So as with most universities they have an income stream independent of what they get from the Scottish Government and probably have invested that money to maximise the income.

    • Yes it makes the case for reform very clearly. Never convinced that external income streams are fully costed.

      • Possibly they are not fully coated but then Universities are not very good when it comes to managing money which is worrying when you consider they offer degree courses in accountancy, economics and of course MBAs.

  8. Alf excellent idea about the national university.

    Although it would drive the media into a frenzy about “State Controlled Education Of Our Youth”. ……..Which makes it even more appealing just to stir things up with the 4th estate!

    • Aye Jock, as John and others have uncovered, the MSM are no friend of Scotland, and thankfully a growing number of Scots folk now realise this. The ancient universities have been allowed to do their own thing for 400+ years and, just as Andy Wightman has shown with land ownership in Scotland (‘laws’ from a similar era), this all needs radical reform. Tinkering with these institutions is pointless. And there are other ‘institutions’ in Scottish life that need the same medicine.


    The Ponsonby Post investigated this, and noted that the £5.6 million was not public money but the university’s own money. The main architect behind this seems to have been Professor James Miller, the Vice Principal. He was until recently the head of the OU in Scotland and seems to be a bit of a high flier. He was only at the OU a short while. I would have thought the business plan fairly sound. Higher education is going global. There is a market for cut price degrees in the USA using distance learning and part time delivery as college education costs are rising. That they have run into a local difficulty of obtaining permission to teach sounds political. Vested interests may be blocking this. Unions are strong in east coast US and there may be other vested interests who are opposed. Yes, they should have checked this out more. But that would be my guess as to what’s gone wrong here.

    • Thanks for this. Very interesting. Not sure they can properly discriminate between state and other funds once staff time and effort is counted or not counted. Good on the US unions if that’s the case. Might they be protecting high standard provision which GCU is trying to undercut with dumbed down alternatives?

      • Jackie Baillie was threiping on (in one of the clips in the Ponsonby clip, above) about there being ‘revenue’ implications to the initiative even if the university was claiming to use its own resources, but she didn’t explain what she meant by this, and of course the tame reporter didn’t tackle her on it. I can’t see that staff time costs a lot given the pittance I am paid, for it to make much difference, quite honestly, even if the state indirectly contributes to staff costs. The largest element in any university’s budget these days is the library, and ICT resources.

        My suggestion that there might be a hitch with unions in New York state, with them trying to put a spanner in the works, is only a hunch. I am basing it on hearsay via my American friends who tell me that unions are strong on the east coast. (contrary to popular belief here, US does actually allow, and have, unions. Especially at Newark airport, NJ, if you ever have the misfortune to land there. It’s one of the least friendly places on earth to land if you ever have a hitch, and one of the most likely places to encounter a screw up as well.)

        But it makes a lot of sense. If a US university tried to muscle in to Scottish academe, offering cut-price degrees, what do you think the reaction would be over here? Welcome, welcome? We’ve been waiting all our lives for you to come?

        In Oman and South Africa, where GCU offers a railway management course, the situation is quite different, and there educational entrepreneurs would I think be welcomed with open arms.

        There is a definite market in the US for what GCU may be offering. My American friends tell me that education is becoming unaffordable and working class kids can no longer afford to go to state universities (which are not of high quality). By using different delivery techniques, virtual classrooms, online tutorials, the cost of delivery need not be high. And the punters are definitely there. But the vested interests may not want it, because it may make US teaching jobs even more insecure.

        Ironically, this is just the kind of situation that TTIP is trying to open up that would benefit GCU and Scotland. People associate USA with the free market but it’s actually one of the most protectionist places on the planet.

          • No. I’m saying that here might be a rare example of a positive outcome for it, for us. Which would be kind of ironic. But despite such occasional benefits, the whole trend of TTIP is to flatten the little guy. It’s insane to think a tiny little country like Scotland could ever be a major global player in anything, even if one or two enterprises might manage to make some profits out of agreements like TTIP initially. TTIP is only going to allow the big fish to grow even bigger.

            Anyhoo, lack of TTIP hasn’t stopped Brian Souter’s empire from expanding in the US. Last year I was driving the freeway from Dallas to Houston when I spotted the wholly incongruous sight of a British style blue double decker bus hurtling past me in the opposite direction. It was a Megabus, with the wee smiley man and all. And I googled it up, and sure enough, you can get a Megabus from Dallas to Houston or San Antonio for only $10 single.

  10. Miller’s background is in nursing. He’s done very well, his CV is impressive. I think GCU is offering a nursing qualification in Oman. There’s a huge need for university education in many parts of the world, I think Miller with all his business acumen and awareness of the global educational market and of new communications technologies and tuition delivery systems is really on to something. But New York looks like it’s not the place. Texas is the fastest growing state in the US with it’s large Hispanic population, desperate to rise, that might be a better spot. Fewer barriers. Fewer unions. But then, they’re Spanish speakers. Still, there’s a large English speaking African American population. And of course a few poor whites. Isn’t James Kelman still at the University of Austin?

    • Lot’s of non-unionised Hispanic women? Let’s make a killing? Glasgow institutions get back to imperialism. The students will be glad to do their own cleaning.

      • Well said John. Scotland needs to sort out its own mess first, i.e. 19 out of control higher-ed corporate fiefdoms masquerading as charities – calls for major reform, I would have thunk.

      • No, these women want a degree like anybody else! Who are you privileged white guys to deny them it? And who’s talking about ‘making a killing’? Low cost high quality higher education for the poorest is a worthy aim and it is deliverable. It’s what the OU has been doing for years and I’m very proud of that.


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