This article argues that neoliberalism, the culmination of a continuous totalising assault since the Treaty of Union, has all but destroyed Scotland’s democratic intellect in our universities. Through convergence with, and assimilation of, a foreign, alien tradition, what we had is all but lost. Highlighting current examples of neoliberal capture and catastrophic ideologically-driven plans for future depredations, this article traces a trajectory towards the final destruction of our most distinctive academic legacy – a signifier of what it is to be Scots.

I draw on George Davie’s masterwork [see Murdo MacDonald ‘George Davie: Life and significance’ here], and other sources, to examine the egalitarian educational legacy of John Knox and the Scottish Enlightenment, that together made Scotland’s population the best-educated in the world, whilst simultaneously building the fertile soil in which advances in knowledge, from mathematics to the humanities, from science and engineering to economics, the arts and medicine – all based on a firm grounding in philosophy and letters – could occur. This is what made Scotland the intellectual powerhouse it became – now fading fast.

Knowledge and a hunger for learning were transmitted to all the airts through a public school system fed by our ancient universities that was – quite literary – centuries ahead of its European neighbours – particularly our closest neighbour – creating and sustaining a society imbued with a democratic, egalitarian vigour, and a fine enquiring, justly thrawn, and judiciously sceptical, but generous temper. Its people were taught how to think, not what to think.

The Union attempted to change all this, gradually at first with limited success, by initiating an unrelenting and accelerating drive towards assimilation and usurpation that both undermined our native educational ethos, and paved the way for the capture of academe by business and capital, ending a uniquely humane, enlightened, civilised, civilising and effective means of sustaining civic, and industrial society, that also enriched its culture, whilst driving innovation and inventiveness in all fields of endeavour.

I describe here the events and processes that accelerated convergence with England in the eighteenth century; the economic, social and political developments of the twentieth century that, I argue, have driven Scotland’s democratic intellect – in our universities at least – to the verge of extinction – though there may still be hope in our schools. The Curriculum for Excellence introduced by Mike Russell as secretary of state for Education, claims to introduce “a deep and broad system of learning that’s designed for the modern world, that is designed to make sure that our young people are fully fit for the modern world, and that they understand not just what they learn, but why they learn it”. I have limited knowledge of schools, but this sentiment is certainly consistent with the Democratic Intellect. Time will tell.
This is a long, complicated and detailed article, but I ask readers’ indulgence – for I believe what happens next will make or break our efforts to save our intellectual soul as we move to recover our national freedom.


I have lived my whole professional life in the neoliberal period, most of it involved with research in the NHS and universities –mainly in Scotland – a country which has made distinguished contributions to cultural, scientific and intellectual life, and which has very a very firm native grasp of the role, purpose and value of knowledge and education. Since his masterwork was published in 1961, Scotland has increasingly understood its academic inheritance in the terms described by the Edinburgh philosopher, George Elder Davie: The Democratic Intellect: Scotland and her Universities in the Nineteenth Century (1). Scotland has always had a clear idea of the social and moral purpose of education, but Davie’s work crystallised and explained it to us in a way no-one had achieved hitherto – or subsequently.

As an undergraduate in the nineteen seventies, I am probably among the last generation to experience an education in an institution that retained any remnant of Davie’s idea of the Scottish university: Glasgow (founded 1451) – one of Scotland’s great ancient universities – and throughout most of its history an exemplar of the Democratic Intellect at work. My homeland has its own peculiar higher education history, but one increasingly – and probably fatally convergent with that of the rest of the UK – and its globalising clones.

Neoliberalism and Scottish Higher Education

I have written previously in Bella (‘Tunnelling Out’) about the neoliberal engine that is the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), slavishly following the blueprint of its progenitor Jarratt Report, about which I have written at length elsewhere. Beneath its dull prolix prose, Jarrett lays out the entire plan for the capture and subjugation of UK academia for the use and purposes of global Capital.

I have shown how the SFC has channelled public funds to the notorious US war and torture machine, the RAND Corporation; how under SNP Education Secretary Mike Russell, SFC made giving away free Intellectual Property paid for by the public to private companies, often foreign owned, a condition of Grant to Scottish universities – a policy more neoliberal than any other part of the UK. It is difficult to determine how (other than fees– admittedly important) Scotland is any longer distinctive in its supposedly devolved approach to Higher Education.

I argue here that in most respects the Scottish HE system now shares identical aims and policies with the rest of the UK; that after nearly ten SNP Government years, Scotland’s democratic intellect is more deeply imperilled than ever. Indeed, its recent proposals over the future of SFC, integrating it more closely with Scottish Enterprise, is utterly antithetical to Scottish educational history and tradition, suggesting a profound lack of understanding of Scotland’s universities’ distinctive contribution to our national intellectual inheritance.

This comes at a time where UK Minister for Universities, Science Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson (brother of Boris), is introducing the Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) that will “make it easier” for “alternative providers” in England to open new ‘universities’ offering ‘degree’ courses, accessing public funds, whilst adding further draconian controls over real universities. HERB is set to become a cowboy’s charter aping the USA where a Trump ‘University’ could charge students huge fees for bogus ‘degrees’.

The Neoliberal Road to Perdition

In 2009 the UK (New Labour) government published a White Paper stating universities would need to make a “bigger contribution to economic recovery, and future growth and be central to the country’s economic performance in the twenty-first century” (2). This “Impact” agenda – was the latest of many UK government intervention enjoining universities to “serve the needs of national life” defined as the economic interests of UK ruling elites. This nominally ‘Labour’ government Department for Business, demonstrated that there was no doubt what the role of a university was: New Labour was the biggest cheerleaders for business and Capital; a university’s role was almost exclusively economic – and on that alone it would be judged.

This latest neoliberal reform of higher education made frank and irreversible the Thatcher ‘kulturkampf’ of the Eighties. Thatcher’s UK chapter of the global neoliberal revolution was continued under Prime Ministers Major, Blair, Brown Cameron and May. Education across the UK – including Scotland – would be commodified for business.

Scotland’s Democratic Intellect and the Union

Scotland has long been a place where education – including higher education – was a natural right for those who could benefit from it; where education meant the existence of the educated, knowledgeable, thoughtful society indispensible to a functioning democracy. It was also a necessity for such a poor country, especially after the Union:

“The established system of Schooling was popularly cherished as the chief asset of a poor country whose wealth to an unusual extent was dependent on the export of educated men; and there was fear that that…bringing Scottish education into line into line with English would have the effect of abolishing the one great economic advantage of the smaller country.” – Davie p4

Three hundred years later some of our brightest and best have still have to leave us because we are unable to employ them in their own land.

But economics was not the main reason for Scotland’s cherished regard of education:

“…the pride of the Scots …was interwoven with their peculiar academic arrangements as constituting the great evidence and effect of their former nationhood ..the Scots had an almost religious attachment to their inherited ideal of a culture in which the general should take precedence over the particular, the whole over the parts even if (the opposite) should prove profitable to themselves as individuals (involving) a regrettable declension from the highest norms” -Davie p4

Supreme of these “highest norms” was that in return for an education, the recipient was expected to repay with some service to the community. Many did this by becoming school teachers – the Scottish Dominie; the flower of the nation – responsible for the best educated population in the world for over three centuries. Education was generally free – public schools (and universities) in Scotland were and are public – fee-paying came with the “Englishing” of the system. Bursaries were provided for poorer students.

Writing on the acceleration of this process by the1830 (Education Reform) Commission, Davie writes:

“The policy here recommended obviously involved a ruthless Anglicisation. Pressure was exerted to force all schools to the pattern of Edinburgh academy” (Davie p58) – consciously founded by Henry Cockburn and Leonard Horner specifically to compete with England’s ‘public’ (private) schools.

It continues yet: Sadly, no post-devolution Scottish Government has made the slightest attempt to restrict the unfair advantages purchased by the wealthy through the state-subsidised private education that so disfigures Scotland and deprives children from poorer backgrounds of life chances – most recently, we learn, that significant numbers in ‘independent’ schools “gain more time for exams” compared to state school students.

The old system – supposedly guaranteed under the Treaty of Union, was being thrust aside: “It is (therefore) not surprising that, under the impact of nineteenth century politico-economic developments, the highly distinctive and indeed semi-Continental character of Scottish education was considered by many to be incompatible with the emerging pattern of a unified ‘British way of life’”. (Davie p3).

Contamination by egalitarian Presbyterian principles (Chapter 1 of the Democratic Intellect is entitled “The Presbyterian Inheritance”) – still less ‘Continental’ influences – would not be tolerated by Westminster. Plus ça Brexit change!

Destroying the peculiar in Scottish education became an increasingly urgent project for Scotland’s new masters – especially in Universities. It continues still –indeed has accelerated since IndyRef and now Brexit – for two related reasons: Despite its nominal devolved status, higher education in Scotland takes its lead from England (SFC is obliged to follow the Higher Education Funding Council for England – HEFCE slavishly); and thirled to the neoliberal dogma of education’s true and only (economic) purpose, Scottish politicians of all parties, sadly including – some might say “especially” the SNP – either do not understand what is happening, or if they do, are complicit in it.

Convergence, Enclosure and Capture by Capital

Continual convergence with English systems undermining Scottish concepts is important, not just because it has compromised a proud educational tradition serving well its social, cultural and political life, but also because it forms part of the homogenising administrative mechanism by which the UK academy was enclosed and captured by British – and increasingly – Global Capital.

Until neoliberalism the Scottish universities remained clear inheritors and protagonists of the Scottish Enlightenment. Their shared values were of free enquiry, rational analysis, open discourse, respect for evidence, and support for their members in these pursuits. Unlike their English counterparts, whose social elitism and narrow academic obscurantism, rendered them the preserve of an effete class-based minority of ecclesiastical mausoleum curators, the intellectually vigorous Scottish universities embodied what Davie referred to as a “sagacious combination of practicability and of principles which stood in silent but emphatic contrast to the corresponding usages of the South”.

This resulted in a “reaffirmation of the genuinely democratic character of the universities: every opportunity was made to develop the traditional Scottish machinery designed to neutralise the inequalities of scholastic and family backgrounds”. Technically ‘private’, Scottish universities have always been viewed as a community asset and a public good. The essential paradox of university expansion in the latter half of last century, ostensibly to extend access, in service to a modern economy, has been the progressive abandonment of traditional Scottish usages and principles, along with large swathes of the Scottish population, particularly those from less-privileged backgrounds, to the so-called ‘vocational’ neophytes, while its ancient universities are increasingly populated by southern social elites – staff and students.

In 1939 there were only 21 universities in the UK including the ancients and English ‘red-bricks’; pre-Robbins six new ‘plate-glass’ institutions were created in England (3). No new university was founded on the UK mainland between 1969 and 1992, whereupon, following Jarrett, the binary divide between polytechnics (for vocational training) and universities was abolished, and literally dozens of new ‘universities’ were created in the following years.

An astonishing 70 new ‘universities’ have been established in England since 1986 – nine in the last three years alone. In the eighties and nineties Tory governments expanded student numbers, without adequate resource, and governance structures were made to resemble a “business school conception of a well run company”(2).

This is no accident: Despite the diversity of type and ‘mission’ of institutions now calling themselves ‘universities’, or offering ‘degrees’ (including companies licensed by the Cameron governments, and the unelected May regime), all have frameworks of governance and funding crafted to bring about control of their intellectual product for economic rent extraction. The ultimate source of these rents is academic labour; value is sequestered by changing the nature of the institutions in which they work and the ownership of their ideas.

Jarrett was the precursor of a skein of eponymous reviews of the same genre: Dearing, Lambert, Alexander, Browne, and most recently the (supposedly) Independent Review of University Research Funding by Lord Nicholas Stern.

All of a similar purpose; to dismantle piece by piece the universities as independent, free associations of scholars and professionals, replacing them with a Post-Fordist apparatus of accountants, managers and bureaucrats. And although the Robbins report (3) twenty two years earlier had continued the assimilation of the Scottish universities into the UK model, it was nevertheless a more subtle, humanist – indeed, ‘intellectual’ document than those that followed it, even to the extent that it recognised the distinctive nature and contribution of the Scottish system.

It would be wrong to assume that capitalism had not been active in co-opting universities prior to that time. For although the capitalist influence on universities, including on the research they performed and subjects they taught – particularly economics and social sciences – bore the indelible mark of ruling class interests in operation, in the UK it was Jarrett that began, and provided the neoliberal blueprint for, the systematic managerial takeover of the academy, and its removal from academic and democratic control.

Changing the Role of Education for Profit

Universities have always been inextricably intertwined with power structures. This could hardly be otherwise, given that they were spaces where, abstracted from the world of mere subsistence, time and resources allowed the pursuit of matters that had no immediate or necessary bearing on the wider economic environment.
This does not mean that higher education and research have no socially useful role or economic purpose – since the Enlightenment they have done so increasingly (and should continue to do so for the benefit of all – not just the rich). But this cannot occur if universities lose sight of their essential nature: “Universities cannot be, and should not attempt to be, knowledge factories and/or training schools – though they are centres of knowledge and of the sort of education that makes high-level training possible.” – Terry Brotherstone (4).

Brotherstone reiterates the Scottish approach whereby: “ .. universities welcomed students early and ..put (them) through a four year course of general education culminating in compulsory philosophy (and thereafter).. (they) were expected to take up their specialist or professional training” (Davy p4-5).

That external environment nevertheless had to provide the economic surplus for these pursuits to take place –a substantial collective sacrifice for a poor country. But surplus has always been in the hands of ruling elites, and at their disposal. Indeed this fact, and the meanness of the aristocracy, obstructed the ambitious educational aims expounded in Knox’s First Book of Discipline (7). As monopoly capitalism has progressed through the current existential crisis of accumulation and financialisation, it is progressively driven to extract all available rents from all possible sources, and hence simply cannot ignore universities as engines of profit, as well as providers of validating discourses for the self-serving belief systems of the ruling elites, and the propaganda model that promotes these.

If marauding finance capital is not halted, its rake’s progress will inevitably contribute to the destruction of both: Of academia whose utility resides in being allowed to explore and follow its own pursuits of truth and innovation, without the deadening interference of intellectually limited politicians, civil servants and businessmen; and of Capital whose rent-seeking devours the sources of consumption upon which it relies whilst smothering sources of innovation – academic research – and the teaching upon which society relies for skilled workers and informed citizens.

The Scottish University Tradition

Universities have always had to bear some relevance, and to have a relationship with, the societies and economies that sustain them. Throughout time particular attention, if not outright obeisance, has had to be paid to the wishes and interests of the ruling elites in societies, whether of church, crown, industry, commerce and finance (5).

Thus European medieval pre-Enlightenment universities were ecclesiastical, entirely male institutions that confined academic debate and teaching to questions of religious orthodoxy, and hence they did not support free enquiry. Universities were places for training the clergy and elite men (not women) in the other classical professions –doctors, lawyers and schoolmasters. There were therefore substantial variations across Europe – and indeed within the British Isles, particularly between England and Scotland, where it can be argued that Enlightenment values permeated her five ancient Scottish universities (6) earlier and more rapidly (1,7) with England retaining the ecclesiastical obscurantist model in its meagre two ancient institutions right into the eighteenth century.

Meanwhile in Scotland medicine, science and (classical) economics flourished – and even engineering gained a substantial foothold – although practical training was left to Mechanics’ Institutes such as The School of Arts of Edinburgh (founded 1821 – which became Heriot Watt University) and Anderson’s Institute, founded as a ‘place of useful knowledge’ (1796) by John Anderson, Professor of Natural Philosophy (Physics) at Glasgow –becoming the Royal College and subsequently the University of Strathclyde (1964).

As Andrew Lockhart Walker wrote (7):

“…the ancient universities of Scotland and those of England were as the poles opposed. In almost every respect the former were superior to the latter throughout the eighteenth century when they produced the geniuses of the Scottish Enlightenment, and when the latter, as Gibbon put it, were sunk in sloth and port.”

This was to be a last great flourishing of Scottish intellectualism in the Universities, drawing upon Scotland’s medieval traditions and European inheritance, principally from Bologna and Paris (7).

Simply stated the Tradition was this: Scottish universities existed to train people for the professions, having first provided them with an all- round education in what the better American Universities (resulting from their own Scottish inheritance) refer to as the Liberal Arts. What gave the Scottish flavour and it’s democratic character to a broader European inheritance, derives largely from the influence of the (Presbyterian) First Book of Discipline (John Knox,1560, on the Geneva Model), with its inherent distrust of power hierarchies (7):

“The chapter on schools and universities must be one of the greatest manifestoes on education ever written. It proposed that there should be:

1. Elementary schools open to all children from 5 or 6 to 8 years of age;
2. In ‘towns of any repute’ grammar schools where town children would learn the rudiments, then together with the country children, Latin grammar from 8-12;
3. In important towns high schools where selected pupils of 12 to 16 would learn other classical languages, logic and rhetoric.

The best scholars would then advance to university to study for eight years – 3 years general arts, including mathematics, moral and natural philosophy (Physics) then 5 years of professional study in the Law, Medicine or Theology. They would receive a bursary, for there was to be a bursary for the ‘clever poor’; 72 for St Andrews; 48 each for Glasgow and Aberdeen” – Walker p30

For its time this was truly revolutionary – few countries, least of all England, offered education for the ‘poor’ – ‘clever’ or not.

“It was a continuation of Bologna and Paris and was to continue right down to the twentieth Century” – Walker p31.

The Epilogue to the First Book of Discipline expresses the Scottish sentiment towards education most clearly:

“If God shall grant quietness and give your Wisdoms grace to set forward letters in the sort prescribed, ye shall leave wisdom and learning to your posterity, a treasure more to be esteemed than any earthly treasures ye are able to provide for them; which without wisdom, are more able to be their ruin than help or comfort.”

To this Walker adds: “These words have a powerful resonance today as we look around at our greedy consumerist societies, the starvation and destitution in the Third World and our incredible despoliation of the biosphere”.

In his sentiments Knox is surely echoing (consciously or not) the words in the Papal Bull of Pope Nicholas V in 1451 (who was a graduate of Bologna), founding Glasgow University on the Bologna model, as a place of knowledge, wisdom and learning, as a means of improving the lives of individuals, and the city and country of its foundation (9):

“Amongst other blessings which mortal man is able in this transient life by the gift of God to obtain, it is to be reckoned not among the least, that by assiduous study he may win the pearl of knowledge, which shows him the way to live well and happily, and by the preciousness thereof makes the man of learning far to surpass the unlearned, and opens the door for him clearly to understand the mysteries of the Universe, helps the ignorant, and raises to distinction those that were born in the lowest place….. the simple instructed, equity in judgment upheld, reason flourish, the minds of men illuminated, and their understandings enlightened.” – Bull of Pope Nicholas V, 1451

Compare the soaring ideals of Knox and Nocholas to the grubby little response of Higher Education Minister Jo Johnson to the recent Stern Report:

“The report recognises the advantage that our world class research brings to the UK and the key role that our universities play in delivering high quality teaching and excellent research driving productivity and economic growth.”

In Scotland an all-round education, not a narrow technocratic training, was part of the distinctively democratic approach, emphasising that people were more than atomised individuals in their professional or working lives; they were members of a cooperative society, with responsibilities to their fellows.

As Herbert Grierson, professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh explained shortly after the end of the First World War:

“Men and women are not only…expert (or inexpert) lawyers, doctors, merchants, manufacturers, bankers, clerks and artisans; they are also citizens of the world and the state. Regarded in its simplest and most practical way, they are voters on whose understanding and temper the security of society, and its callings and institutions depends. It is in the immediate and insistent interests of every profession and industry that the education of its members and servants should include elements of a liberal education which do not belong to the school stage – philosophy, history, economics, literature, art – and that as so far as is practicable, they should be encouraged to pursue such studies even after they have begun their professional training… and it is the duty of the state and the universities to provide the necessary means… The university will have to enter in a more generous spirit than in the past into the humanist education…of all classes and conditions of society” (my emphasis)
Herbert Grierson, cited, AL Walker,1994 p.175

The emphasis was in educating all who wished it, were capable of it, and could benefit themselves – and crucially, wider society from it, irrespective of wealth and class. And this was the Scottish position for three centuries before Robbins.

The contrast with England was stark. Unlike their wealthy southern counterparts, Scottish universities took practical steps to ensure that education was valued for its content and emphatically not for its social cachet, and this was reflected in those who attended its classes – of all social classes and with a range of abilities:

“What was wrong with the Scottish system was that the examinations followed the lectures too closely, “Partly from the inability of most students to obtain an adequate supply of books. Many were too poor to buy, and shrank from the deposit required for the library… But what left the greatest impact on him (Grierson) – greater than that of any teacher- was the class itself:

“There is nothing anywhere.. where the systems of options as now in Scotland prevails and where there is no honours degree (the specialist single subject honours degree was an import from England) – quite like a Scottish university class as it then was (the late nineteenth century). It was a heterogeneous but united body from first to last… (including) students of all degrees and variety of capacity..”. .., “so that the class contained the strongest and the weakest in classics, mathematics, philosophy and science…In none of the subjects were the attainments yet high but the capacity was there; and a professor who passed from Aberdeen to Cambridge has confessed to me that there was nothing he missed so much as addressing an audience which included such a range of ability and interest.” (AL Walker, p.174)

“The Scottish universities were the true inheritors of the medieval tradition, whereas:
Oxford and Cambridge were the very pinnacle of elitism and fashionable snobbery, both in their social life and in their colleges.” (AL Walker, ibid)

Thus, two centuries before Robbins, Scotland was far ahead of England in terms of access to higher education:

“Between 1740 and 1839 13% of students at Glasgow University came from families of the nobility and landed gentry…with 35% at Cambridge between 1752 and 1849…whereas there were virtually no working class children at Cambridge, at Glasgow one third – 33% came from labouring families (Walker, p.174).” (8)

Would that we could do as well now – for all our access courses, comprehensive education and enlargement of the sector. Social class remains the greatest predictor of success and failure; of health and illness; longevity or early death.

The major point of discontinuity for the Scottish Academy, as with other aspects of the country’s social relations, followed the Treaty of Union – although as Davy himself points out, in the immediate aftermath of Union, Scottish Education for at least 100 years diverged significantly from the English model until the nineteenth century (Davy, P.3) and the increasing thrust towards conformity with the norms and usages of the larger partner.

In the Democratic Intellect, Davie traces the increasing assimilation into the British (in reality English) forms, of Scottish political and economic life during the eighteenth century. Despite the erosion of distinctly Scottish institutions and practices throughout the post-Union experiment, what continued to distinguish Scots in the main from others in the Union was that they “stuck to a policy” of “apartness in social ethics” that continued to rest upon what the author called “the distinctive life of the country…in the mutual interaction of religion, law and education”. Davy, pp. xviii –xxvii)

Published in 1961, Davie’s aim in writing the Democratic Intellect was to reveal the way in which the values of the Scottish intellectual tradition had been largely eroded during that century, and that its Universities, having been a last bastion of Scottish democratic and social ethics had been under sustained attack from the South. Social, political and professional ethics in Scotland were underpinned by an education that was simultaneously philosophical, whilst remaining scientific, humanistic and democratic. These values were rapidly decaying under continued attack by homogenising, centralising UK forces throughout the twentieth century, and by mid-century were approaching extinction.

the-democratic-intellectThe Death of the Scottish Democratic Intellect

Davy witnessed (he died in aged 95 in 2007) these dire effects on both Scotland and her universities: The restriction of academic independence by remorseless centralisation; state-fostered pseudo-competition between universities for students (now re-cast as customers) and funding (deliberately restricted as the sector was remorselessly enlarged); for pseudo ‘prestige’ – national and international, and the creation of futile and false tensions between research and teaching (with the latter demoted in a most un-Scottish way) along with the diminution of respect for ‘mere’ (non-utilitarian) scholarship.

We may yet pay a huge price for the abandonment of academic and moral discourse and for uncritical claims of scientific advance; the wisdom of the old Scottish system would not have permitted the economic utility of novel science-based technologies to trump considerations of the ethical consequences of their expolitation (including social and environmental ethics). This naturally makes the Scottish approach deeply unattractive to neoliberal concepts of economic ‘freedom’ and the unhindered pursuit of profit, but is indispensible for the development of science in the service of humanity.

Such fragmentation and pseudo-competition are both deeply destructive of academic endeavour, as well as being profoundly un-Scottish, as Scottish historian Robert Anderson (10) has pointed out:

“There is no doubt that the whole tradition of the democratic intellect and the lad o’ pairts, which can be seen in its classic form in Scotland in the 19th and early 20th centuries, belongs to Rothblatt’s (11) model of liberal democracy. … In the twentieth century that ideology did help to shape a broader egalitarianism, and arguably the Scottish idea that no talented person should be denied an education because of poverty fed into the era of the welfare state and Robbins.”

This egalitarian philosophy – even if limited by the social mores of the time – would inevitably and necessarily fall foul of the incipient neoliberal revolution. Whilst no enemy of economic elitism, neoliberals would need access to expertise, and a trained workforce, as well as the intellectual property generated by universities, which would therefore need to become less intellectually – and in selected cases – less socially elitist, and open to a far larger proportion of the population than was the case hitherto. Enlargement and dumbing down would be mutual handmaidens.

The Robbins report recommended immediate expansion of the university system. This was acceptable to neoliberal thinking insofar as it provided intellectual and human ‘resources’ for expanding capital. More problematic was its recommendation (3) that university places:

“Should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment” (the Robbins principle) and that such institutions should have four main “objectives essential to any properly balanced system: instruction in skills; the promotion of the general powers of the mind so as to produce not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women; to maintain research in balance with teaching, since teaching should not be separated from the advancement of learning and the search for truth; and to transmit a common culture and common standards of citizenship”.

There can be no doubt that the Robbins Committee (1961-63) drew on The Democratic Intellect – and indeed that influence has been long recognized (12).
The virtues of “an education that encourages a free interplay between special knowledge and general understanding” displayed by Davie were hailed in a review of the book by the Times Higher Education Supplement (12). But such identifiably ‘Scottish’ sentiments were both socially dangerous for elite interests, and unduly expensive. These and other ‘less acceptable’ elements of Robbins would never be fully implemented.

The enlargement of the sector would have to be paid for, and at first this was accomplished from the Exchequer – with generous grants to students from less affluent backgrounds. I was a beneficiary of this, and so this Lanarkshire steelworker’s son went to a real Scottish university whilst it was recognizable as such. This was always too egalitarian and ‘welfare state’ for the neoliberals. As for producing cultivated men and women, with highly developed general powers of the mind, geared to culture and citizenship – not to mention the ability to think, question and challenge their betters – now that really was taking things too far. Robbins could not be where this matter was left. Nor was it.

The neoliberal revolution ushered in by Thatcher, planned by Jarrett, and implemented by all succeding UK and Scottish governments, including sadly the SNP, has all but destroyed the Scottish University and its destinctive humanist ideals.

I am now in my early sixties and retired; most of those left running universities in Scotland, being either too young or educated narrowly and elswhere, have little or no knowledge or experience of what constitutes a Scottish University. The patient lingers on – but death cannot be far away.



1. Davie, G.E., 1961, The Democratic Intellect: Scotland and her Universities in the Nineteenth Century, Edinburgh Classic Editions (2013) Edinburgh University Press
2. Collini, S 2012, What are Universities for?, Penguin, London,
3. REPORT of the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins 1961-63 Presented to Parliament by the Prime Minister by Command of Her Majesty October 1963 LONDON, HMSO. It advised university expansion but retained a level of respect for academic standards and democracy.
4. Intellect and Democracy, 2010: A report submitted to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning by the University and College Union Scotland as a contribution to the 2010 Green Paper Consultation.
5. Nedeva, M., 2007, New Tricks and Old Dogs? The ‘Third Mission’ and the Reproduction of the University, in Epstein, D. et al. (eds), World Yearbook of Education 2008: Geographies of Knowledge/Geometries of Power: Framing the Future of Higher Education, NY: Routledge.
6. Marischal College (1593) and Kings College (1495) merged to form the University of Aberdeen only in 1835.
7. Walker, A.L, 1994, The Revival of the Democratic Intellect, Polygon, Edinburgh
8. Boden R and Epstein, D, A flat earth society? Imagining academic freedom The Sociological Review, 59:3 (2011), 446-495
9. Pope Nicholas V, (1451) Papal Bull, Founding Document of Glasgow University, Rome.
10. Anderson, Robert, 2010, In: Intellect and Democracy: A report submitted to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Ibid
11. Rothblatt, E. , 2008, Education’s Abiding Moral Dilemma: Merit and Worth in the Cross-Atlantic Democracies, 1800-2006, Symposium Books, Didcott.
12. MacDonald, M and Gunn, R, 2013, Introduction to The Democratic Intellect: Scotland and her Universities in the Nineteenth Century, Edinburgh Classic Editions, Edinburgh University Press, p. xi


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