Add apples and bicycles for a confusing result

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By George Kerevan
 
Performance tables never offer an entirely accurate picture but Scotland’s universities must adapt to face the future, writes George Kerevan
 
HOW good are Scottish universities? A number of investigations claim our universities have slipped down the global league table, with no bottom in sight. One recent Sunday newspaper ranked Edinburgh University below East Anglia. Believe that if you like.

The latest tables have been compiled by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), and are usually treated with respect in academic circles. They suggest that British universities as a whole are sliding down the international league towards – with a few exceptions – general mediocrity.

Scottish institutions fair no better. According to the THES, Edinburgh University, the highest placed Scottish institution, ranks only 32nd in the world. No other local university makes it into the first 100. St Andrews is at 108, Glasgow at 139, and Aberdeen at 176. Forget the rest.

My advice is not to panic. University league tables have a built-in weakness: they add together results for very different activities (research, teaching quality, drop-out rates, student satisfaction, graduate employment, etc.) and rank the outcome. This is like adding apples and bicycles, especially when there are many different types of university. Some are research bodies while others put teaching first; some are tiny while others in Asia grapple with hundreds of thousands of students.

Is a university with world-class research (ie Edinburgh) to be considered mediocre if its student satisfaction scores let it down? Is a university with a high drop-out rate (ie the University of the West of Scotland) to be criticised because it risks taking in marginal students from a restricted catchment area?

With these provisos, what can be said about Scotland’s university sector? For a start, it still produces some of the world’s best scientific research. The Times Higher Ed may not rank Dundee among the world’s top 200 universities, but the global medical research profession will tell you otherwise.

True, I think Scotland has slipped badly in its contribution internationally to the social sciences, especially in economics and history – largely because we have become self-absorbed with researching domestic problems rather than global ones. But in the hard sciences, Scotland’s research contribution outranks that of, say, Scandinavia or most European countries.

At the same time, it is difficult to find hard evidence that teaching or graduate quality has suffered. Despite urban myths about Scotland’s newer universities turning out massed ranks of unemployable media studies graduates, the biggest rise in enrolments over the past decade have been in hard subjects like engineering and medical studies.

However, I do worry about the high drop-out rate in some Scottish universities. After spending 25 years in higher education teaching, I’ve always felt we push students into degrees for the sake of it. Recent research by the Scottish universities funding body found that a disturbingly high number of graduates would, in retrospect, have studied something else.

Scotland has opted for a relatively unique university model. For social reasons, we have encouraged mass university entrance – the participation rate is higher than in England. At the same time, we have opted for a relatively large number of individual universities, each with relatively small student numbers by international standards, to maintain quality. To achieve all this, the SNP government has rejected tuition fees, preferring to fund from general taxation. A further rise in student numbers and the need to recruit the best academics internationally would put a serious strain on the Scottish budget, even with independence.

Of course, fees are not a panacea. The Westminster government intends to abolish direct state grants to universities, meaning universities are on their own financially. That’s fine if you’re “Oxbridge”, but English provincial universities will become cheap teaching supermarkets, packing in tens of thousands of under-supervised students to survive. I don’t recommend this elitist model.

Curiously, there are fewer graduates in the Scottish work force than in many countries – possibly because we lose them to England and abroad. So there is a strong economic case to maintain numbers in higher education. Because of this, and for reasons of national pride, it is possible the Scottish electorate (with or without independence) will view higher education as a budget priority. But it will be a financial stretch. University spending in Scotland has only been maintained so far by a (much needed) rationalisation of further education colleges, with the cash saved switched to higher education. That can’t be done twice.

We also need to grasp that university education and research has become an international business based on global competition for the best researchers and most talented students. In this new game, the well-endowed US Ivy League colleges are out in front, giving “Oxbridge” and the big London institutions a run for their money. How can Scotland possibly compete?

But even splitting Scotland’s university sector into our own fee-paying Ivy League (Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and St Andrews) and state-funded universities focused on mass vocational teaching, will not help. The old campus model is dying, and with it the lucrative foreign student market Scottish universities rely on. Beckoning in the wings is the next university revolution in which the international brand leaders use social media to capture the global market for vocational degrees. If the choice is a prestigious Harvard internet degree in two years, or a four-year grind at Edinburgh Napier, which will students buy?

One thing is certain: universities are going to be more differentiated and more competitive. A “one-size fits all model” is dead. Scotland needs to accept this and give our universities more scope for experiment, including funding models.

We might be looking at a vocational, multi-campus University of Scotland, on the model of California’s UCLA. This would support focused, world-class research but have vastly increased student numbers to achieve financial economies of scale. Additionally, we might have fee-charging universities but (following the US) with large endowment funds that enable them to provide free tuition to talented students from poor backgrounds. The real point about the THES rankings is not that Scottish universities are failing, but that other countries are catching up. We need to raise our game.

Courtesy of George Kerevan and the Scotsman newspaper