Glasgow University needs a new plan

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Glasgow University sent an email to its students on 17 February 2011 with the subject line “Message from Court”.  It contains the kind of corporate-speak about strategies, reviews and consultations that only mean one thing for sure: someone other than the authors is about to get it in the neck.

The e-mail is signed by David Ross, Convenor of Court, and Anton Muscatteli, Principal.  A cynic might think that it piggy backs on a technique regularly deployed by the coalition government at Westminster: trying to make cuts more palatable by proposing an apocalypse as the alternative. Last September Muscatelli declared that the university might be bankrupt within three years unless  “corrective action” was taken.  Compared to bankruptcy, “reshaping”  archaeology, history, classics and modern languages and “potential withdrawal”  from open programme courses in higher education, liberal arts in Dumfries, nursing, anthropology and the Centre for Drug and the Centre for Drug Use Research seems like small potatoes.

Principal Muscatelli and the rest of his management team have two problems.  First of all, nobody believes the bankruptcy line.  In the 2010 financial year the university ran a surplus of over £6 million. Secondly, there are many both in and beyond the affected areas that think these potatoes aren’t so small.

In situations like this the traditional practice is for the people on the hit list to express outrage and assume defensive postures while those not on the list heave a sigh of relief and crawl deeper into their tents.  This time, however, the criticism has been both general and specific.  The proposed reshaping and potential withdrawals have offended those who believe that universities are part of a nation’s vision and investment in its future as well as those caught in the cross hairs.

In the latter category, the reduction in modern language provision has received the most attention. Glasgow stands accused of parochialism and many from inside and outside the university (and the country) have observed that reducing the teaching of Russian, Polish, Czech, and German in a multi-lingual Europe makes no sense from a cultural, business, or any other point of view.

The proposed withdrawal from liberal arts courses at Glasgow University Dumfries, by contrast, has received little attention.  The campus was saved, as promised, by the incoming SNP government in 2007 when it was commonly known as Crichton and concentrated its efforts almost exclusively on the liberal arts. Re-invigorated under the directorship of Professor Ted Cowan it then expanded into new areas like primary education and carbon management and Cowan was able to declare it “well-funded”  and “secure” when he retired in 2009.

The reward for all this enterprise seems to be that GUD will lose the courses that were its original remit.  To add to the confusion, Cowan’s successor Professor David Clark, an expert in palliative care, is giving the impression that he supports the diminishment of his own campus.  The cuts, he says, can help ensure its future and the “upturn” in liberal arts applications this year is dismissed as a “one-off” product of the clearing system.

Glasgow University’s cost cutting programme is intended to save £20m over the next three years. Some are reluctant to take the management team’s assurances that this is necessary and say that they should be putting their efforts into finding new sources of funding.

One way is to increase the intake of international students. In a letter to the Sunday Observer 16 university vice-chancellors stated that the Westminster Government’s intention to decrease the number of international students coming to the United Kingdom would “spell disaster” for a number of reasons including the fact that they contribute £5bn to the UK economy.  The only Scottish signatory was Anton Muscatteli.

Many leaders of Scottish universities have had their say on this issue and it is a bit of a mystery why Muscatteli should be lining up with English universities rather than raising an aggressive national campaign in Scotland.  Here the international student cap is an especially disastrous policy when resistance to local tuition fees has broad support.

Glasgow University has a particular problem; it’s not very good at attracting international students now without having to worry about competing in a smaller general pool in the future.  9.4% of students at Glasgow are international according to The Complete University Guide.  Its ancient competitors in Scotland: St. Andrews, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, are at 26.4%, 15.5%, and 18.2% respectively.

Perhaps the one thing the seemingly disparate areas identified for reshaping or withdrawal have in common is that they don’t attract many international students.  No-one has actually said so, but corporate approaches to complex problems rarely overlook that kind of simple “solution”.

The broader reputational damage done by accusations of parochialism, short-term thinking, punishing enterprise, and lack of vision, however, far outweighs the perceived inability of particular programmes and courses to attract vast numbers of international students.  When you also have a national government policy that gives the impression that students furth of Scotland aren’t welcome here, you create a powerful deterrent.

Principal Muscatelli needs a university that is attractive to international students and a national government that won’t stand in their way.  No point in having one without the other.  At present, he has neither.