University expansion row threatens SNP Government in higher education debate

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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.

PROBLEMS

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?

SOUTH WALES

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.

‘VANITY PROJECT’

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.

LABOUR ATTACK

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