Holyrood 2007 - Where is Higher Education?

With the Holyrood election looming, we wrote backing February to all parties represented at Holyrood and all independent members still to declare whether they would be seeking re-election, to address them on the following

points:-

Funding

Many current academics are approaching retirement while graduate debt deters the brightest from postgraduate education. What changes in current funding policy do you propose to encourage more Scottish-based graduates to continue to postgraduate and postdoctoral education, to maintain and expand the current level of higher education provision in Scotland and allow more Scots graduates to achieve their full academic potential, to the benefit of our culture, society and economy?

Admission and residence of non-EU students/researchers

Under the Academic Technology Approval Scheme, the Foreign Office will carry out background checks on all non-EU citizens applying to study or research in areas such as physics, metallurgy, microbiology, biophysics and all branches of engineering, supposedly to vet potential terrorists. Fears have been expressed that delays will cause bona fide applicants to turn elsewhere instead.

Scottish-based, UK-wide operating charities after independence

This final point is primarily for those who endorse Scottish Independence. The NPC is a charity, SC033368, registered in Scotland, with a UK-wide remit. We note that the Scottish electorate reserves the right to opt for independence; therefore, we ask what procedure you propose to introduce in such event a propos the activities of charities like ourselves which would find ourselves based outwith the greater part of our current area of operation.

We received precisely five replies, only two of which outlined policy. They were:-

Labour

o No change from status quo

o Fully supportive of ATAS

o No comment (N/A)

Scottish Socialist Party

o Funding through grants, thus avoiding the

accumulation of debts

o ATAS "an unnecessary over-reaction"

o "Foresee no real difficulties"

Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party

o Letter forwarded to the Deputy First Minister on our behalf! (He replied!!)

Dr Jean Turner

o Communication acknowledged

Margo MacDonald

o Communication acknowledged

From the rest, zilch, nada, zero. We hope their silence is not indicative of how seriously they really take postgraduate education and the future of the higher education sector.

All thanks to Labour and the SSP for their detailed replies (Colin Fox replied personally); Nicol Stephen´s official (and obligatory) response to correspondence forwarded from the Tories announced a planned review of support for taught postgraduate courses but gave no indication that the Executive see a looming recruitment crisis and are planning ahead. At least we know that James Douglas-Hamilton opened the letter, even if both he and Stephen failed to read it properly to see what it was asking of the Scots Tories - their own policy, not that of the current administration.

On our third point, we should have perhaps underlined that NPC is essentially a representative body; an independent Scotland would put us in the reverse position to that which Gordon Brown is trying to stare down.

Of the other parties, only the following have anything of note to say in their manifestoes:-

Scottish National Party

o To review situation of part-time and postgraduate students

o Support efforts to attract more international students

o Pledge an additional £10m for cutting edge research

o Propose a Scottish Life Sciences Institute

Scottish Greens

o Cut cost of international student visas, increased support for international students

o Allow earlier application date for Fresh Talent

o Widen access, increase retention and support part-time and informal study

Solidarity

o Higher education to be "free at the point of need"

o Commission appointed to establish best methods of funding free education and financing quality research, examining the following options:-

o Increase in Corporation tax

o Scottish Universities Research and Patent fund, to put profits back into the system

o General power of competence for universities to borrow and invest for research, development and teaching

o Redirecting tax breaks for business back into university education

o General taxation

o Use of Scottish parliamentary under spend

The Greens´ pledge to cut visa charges is most welcome but it is Solidarity which, uniquely, sets out plans to address seriously how to raise extra funds for higher education and research.

It is disappointing that no other party has put as much thought into this issue which so effects those whose interests we represent.

The SNP´s Life Sciences Institute proposal is commendable and at least they come up with a concrete figure for extra research funds - even though it works out at less than £1m per university and is about as much as St Andrews is to spend on its new student union!

It is disappointing that the call of Universities Scotland to fund an extra 4,000 postgraduate posts by 2010 for £21m p.a. have largely fallen on deaf ears.

The rest have nothing to say on postgraduate education and research in their manifestoes.

As a charity, the NPC cannot be politically active so we do not endorse any particular party; however, in pursuit of our declared aim of advancing, in the public interest, postgraduate education in the United Kingdom, we can draw attention to policies which we believe would further our aim. Accordingly, we leave it to the electorate to weigh one thing against another for now and, once the dust of the election has settled, we will be addressing the new Executive. Hopefully, it will prove big enough to take a leaf out of any other party´s book.