As the democratic crisis in Scottish universities such as Aberdeen swirls into public glare, David Kelly asks: What are universities for? Are they for academics or students? Should they focus on research or teaching? Do they exist to serve our society or the economy?

Or, to put it another way – since politics is always an answer to the question of “who gets what, when and how”who are our universities for?

Scotland has 19 universities, many of which are world-class institutions. Together they educate nearly a quarter of a million students. Five are ranked among the world’s top 200 universities, according to Times Higher Education’s definitive 2017 global rankings, “more than any other country per head of population except Luxembourg”.

According to the UK Office for National Statistics, Scotland is the “best educated country in Europe”. Nearly half of Scots aged 25 to 64 “have some kind of tertiary education”, whether from universities or colleges. Our national commitment to democratic education, reaffirmed in recent times by the restoration of free university tuition by the Salmond government, stretches back to the Reformation, with its thirst for the written word and the mother tongue.

Our universities are Scottish institutions. They have educated Scotland’s leaders and her citizens for generations. They have developed a distinctly Scottish philosophy of the “democratic intellect”, as George Davie styled our universities’ proud tradition of a liberal, generalist education. They are temples to knowledge and testaments in stone and glass to Scottish history, from the Enlightenment to Dolly the Sheep. They have made us who we are.

They are also the recipients of over a billion pounds of Scottish taxpayers’ cash every year.[1] They depend on our government, our schools, our infrastructure, our culture, our people. We have made them what they are.

But this is not quite how our universities operate, or perceive themselves, today. Scotland’s universities, particularly her “elite” or “Ancient” institutions, increasingly view themselves as set apart from, or existing beyond the boundaries of, the nation to which they belong and which has given them their identity, and been their intellectual lifeblood, for centuries.

Universities Scotland, the representative and lobbying body for university Principals and Directors, defines Scottish universities as “large and increasingly complex businesses operating on a global stage”.[2] Entirely absent from this self-definition is any notion of a pedagogic purpose, of a national identity or, indeed, of any wider civic responsibility. Thus, Scottish universities appear to believe themselves to be somehow neither Scottish nor universities, preferring to conceptualise themselves as a kind of global corporation.

However, as the Jimmy Reid Foundation argued in its 2013 paper on The Democratic University, although “university managers might wish it otherwise, universities are large national civic institutions with a primary responsibility to their own community of academics and learners. The vast majority of university business is domestic, not international”.

This trend has been more severe in England, where marketisation has progressed further and the highest tuition fees in the world have been so destructive. But Scotland, despite the legislative firewall of devolution, has not been immune. As the “higher education sector” has expanded across the UK over the past three or more decades, its institutions have rapidly denationalised and commercialised.

Universities have adopted the language and logic of the market, hiring small armies of marketers and consultants from the private sector to talk of students as “consumers” and of educators as “service-providers”. Scottish universities are increasingly governed by a detached, professional managerial class with corporate backgrounds to the anti-democratic exclusion of academics and students. Principals’ pay has ballooned to an average annual salary of £277,834 – Strathclyde University’s Jim McDonald earns over £360,000; Aberdeen’s Ian Diamond £352,000; Glasgow’s Anton Muscatelli £322,000. Nicola Sturgeon is on a mere £144,687.

Simultaneously, and not unrelatedly, the number of foreign students has sky-rocketed. From just a few tens of thousands in the 1980s, now nearly one in five students in the UK are from abroad. Audit Scotland’s 2016 audit of Scottish higher education reported that over the past decade:

  • The number of EU students in Scotland rose by 97%
  • The number of non-EU international students rose by 58%
  • The number of students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland rose by 10%[3]

Only a decade ago, three-quarters of students at Scottish universities were “Scottish” – that is, they completed their secondary education here, regardless of their place of birth. Now it is only two-thirds.[4]

According to admissions body UCAS, applicants from England are now 15% more likely to receive an offer from a Scottish university than applicants from Scotland. Between 2010 and 2015, applications from Scottish students increased by 23%, but offers to Scottish students only increased by 9%, leading to a 7% decline in the offer rate. Conversely, the offer rate to non-Scottish students increased by 11% over the same period.[5]

 

“In 2015, Sir Timothy O’Shea, the Principal of Scotland’s top university, the University of Edinburgh, said their “long-term aspiration” was to increase the proportion of foreign students to 50%. With O’Shea stepping down imminently, the current non-UK proportion stands at 41%. With less than a third of Edinburgh students being Scottish, this means over 66% of the university is non-Scottish.”

 

Non-Scottish students are concentrated at our elite, and most wealthy, universities. At the Ancients our highest internationally-ranked institutions – Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews – just 48% of students are Scottish. Conversely, at the non-Ancient institutions – which are usually lower-ranked and, therefore, deliver poorer employment and earnings prospects for graduates – the proportion varies from 66% to 91%.[6]

But this is no accident – or secret. It is, in fact, a deliberate result of stated policy. In 2015, Sir Timothy O’Shea, the Principal of Scotland’s top university, the University of Edinburgh, said their “long-term aspiration” was to increase the proportion of foreign students to 50%. With O’Shea stepping down imminently, the current non-UK proportion stands at 41%. With less than a third of Edinburgh students being Scottish, this means over 66% of the university is non-Scottish.

This is quite exceptional by international standards. Only 19% of Oxford undergraduates are from outside the UK (or 40% of all students when postgraduates are included). Similarly, the proportion of foreign students at, for example, Cambridge, Harvard and across Canada is 11%, 12% and 11% respectively. These are hardly homogenous or parochial institutions. Of the world’s major institutions, only Sciences Po appears to be in the same ballpark, with a student body that is still has a French majority, although 45% are non-French.

Scottish universities have inevitably been accused of prioritising non-Scottish students to increase revenue and of treating foreign students as “cash cows”. The number of Scottish and non-UK EU students, who do not directly pay any tuition fees, is capped by the Scottish Government and Scottish Funding Council based on annual budgets and national workforce needs. The Scottish Government pays only £1,820 per year for each Scottish and EU student to their institution. English, Welsh and Northern Irish students pay up to £9,250 per year. (At an Ancient like Edinburgh, this is the cost of every degree from Animation to Zoology.) Fees for overseas non-EU students, and the number of places available to them, are unlimited by legislation. The average cost for such students in Scotland is £17,000 a year, but can be up to £50,000, unavoidably meaning that non-Scottish students are much more likely to be wealthy and privileged.

Simply put, Scottish students are a much less attractive commercial proposition for university Principals and Vice-Chancellors. An English student is over five times more financially rewarding than a Scottish student – and an American student over ten times more. The 4% fall in direct Scottish Government financial support for universities in real terms since 2010,[7] thanks to Westminster cuts (of at least 5% according the the Fraser of Allander Institute), has further fuelled this trend.

“Simply put, Scottish students are a much less attractive commercial proposition for university Principals and Vice-Chancellors. An English student is over five times more financially rewarding than a Scottish student – and an American student over ten times more.”

Universities spend millions on attracting affluent overseas students, while paying lip-service to increasing access for Scots from deprived backgrounds. The website of Edinburgh Global – the university’s international arm seeking to attract overseas investors, donors and students – is slick, entirely up-to-date and boasts of the university’s year-round presence in “Beijing, Mumbai, Singapore, Santiago & New York”.

Conversely, the most recent events listed on the part of their website which purports to give a “summary of all of our Widening Participation activities throughout the year” are from 2014. If Edinburgh committed as much resources to Leith or Niddrie as they do to London or New York, one wonders if their student body might begin to look, and sound, rather different.

Foreign students are great assets to our universities and to our country. Our universities are diverse and exciting places, where academics and students from across the world come together to learn with, and from, each other. The myopia of the UK’s impending exit from the European Union puts all this, and the ground-breaking research at Scottish universities which is dependent on EU grants, in peril.

Nevertheless, Scotland’s Ancient universities must not become mere playgrounds for the privileged offspring of a global elite. The Scottish Government must act to ensure that universities are adequately funded by taxpayers – and democratically governed by academics and students. Our universities must do much more to widen access to talented Scots from our most deprived communities – because diversity is as much about class as it is about nationality. And they must, as Scottish institutions, learn again to serve the common weal.

 

[1] Audit Scotland (2016) Audit of higher education in Scotland, p. 19

[2] Universities Scotland’s submission to the Review of Higher Education Governance, September 2011 https://www.universities-scotland.ac.uk/uploads/US_GovResponse_FINALWEB031011.pdf p. 1

[3] Audit Scotland (2016) Audit of higher education in Scotland, p. 39

[4] Audit Scotland (2016) Audit of higher education in Scotland, p. 40

[5] Audit Scotland (2016) Audit of higher education in Scotland, p. 40

[6] Audit Scotland (2016) Audit of higher education in Scotland, p. 40

[7] Audit Scotland (2016) Audit of higher education in Scotland, p. 19