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politics. tuition fees. Glasgow Univesity. Muscatelli.

Let’s close Glasgow University. Who needs degrees anyway?

    It’s called the “bleeding stumps” strategy.  How managers of publicly-funded organisations resist cuts in their budgets.  They propose cuts in the most painful and visible services in the hope that the media firestorm forces the government to back down.  Aberdeen City Council did it by saying it was considering closing all the city’s parks and making 900 compulsory redundancies among council staff.  North Ayrshire proposed a four day week for schools, a patently ludicrous idea that became headline news for days.  Professor Anton Muscatelli, the vice chancellor of Glasgow University,  has been warning of his university going bankrupt in 2013, inviting images of unemployed academics in gowns and mortar boards shuffling along dole queues, while sheriff officers hold warrant sales of university furniture.  Come to think of it, that Glasgow university building would make a very decent hotel. 
It’s not going to happen.  Nor is Glasgow serious about dumping liberal arts subjects.  The university is refocussing, certainly, but it has some way to go before calling in the administrators or turning away anyone who doesn’t want to do science.  It’s all about attracting media attention to the funding problems facing Scottish higher education in the government’s budget cuts. These are real enough without waving around bleeding stumps. Professor Muscatelli’s claim that there is a £360m shortfall in the Scottish higher education budget is a figure that the government rejects, but no one denies that there is going to be a gap – and a big one. 

   Yet the Scottish budget was passed yesterday by Holyrood without any clear indication, from any party, as to how this gap is to be filled.   The Liberal Democrats, desperate to sound student-friendly after introducing up-to-£9,000 a year tuition fees in England, were bought off by a bung from John Swinney of £14m for student bursaries.  Wow, a whole £14 million – out of a budget of £33billion.  Apart from that – the parties have resorted to collective amnesia on higher education funding.  

     Professor Muscatelli, along with ex-vice chancellors like Lord Sutherland,  is hoping the next Holyrood government will restore tuition fees in the form of a graduate contribution  – though at a lower level than the £9,000 that set Westminster’s Parliament Square ablaze.   University tuition is of course still free in Scotland, and so far only the Tories have officially called for their return in the form of a ‘graduate contribution’.   Labour have more or less accepted that a fees are necessary;  and the SNP have more or less rejected any graduate contribution in favour of keeping higher education free at the point of study.   

   I don’t think Professor Muscatelli will get what he’s after.  Even assuming Labour win, they will be intensely reluctant to reintroduce fees at the £6,000 a year the universities are after.  The student revolt last year changed the landscape.  No party wants to be labelled as the ones who ended Scotland’s tradition of free higher education – especially now that half of all school pupils go on to university.   That’s a lot of votes,  which is why the SNP is almost certainly going to go into the election committed to keeping Scottish higher education free – though not for English or EU students.  

   But there’s a serious question about whether Scottish school leavers will still want to go to university.  A lot of potential students are being put off going to university because they don’t want to be saddled with massive debts and perhaps not get a job at the end of it.  As Rector of Edinburgh University, I was invited onto the Call Kay programme on BBC Radio Scotland the other day to talk about this.  I should have worn my body armour.  There’s a lot of hostile feeling out there about arrogant layabouts doing “mickey mouse” degrees and thinking they can walk into any job.  I was particularly saddened by the number of young callers who said they just didn’t think it was worth getting a degree only to end up flipping burgers in McDonalds to pay of huge debts.  

    I did my best to explain that, yes, a lot of graduates are doing jobs they didn’t study for, but the reality is that if you want a well-paid career job higher education is still the most reliable way.  It’s no guarantee, but a degree at least gets you into contention.  Even for traditionally non-graduate jobs many employers are looking for  degrees.  And the economic reality is that small northern countries like Scotland have no choice but to go for the ‘knowledge economy” because of structural changes in the labour market. 

    We don’t do metal bashing any more. Manufacturing employs only 8% of the workforce.  The economic growth areas are in computing, life sciences like bio-tech, renewable energy and education itself (university learning is one of our biggest exports).  The creative industries – the mickey mouse sector –  actually employs more people than financial services and both are graduate occupations.   Even nursing is a graduate job now, largely because nurses now perform a lot of medical procedures that used to be done by doctors.  

      Of course, higher education isn’t for everyone.   Modern apprenticeships and vocational qualifications have a great deal to offer.    It is regrettable that work with the hand has been devalued, as if it is less skilled or creative than work with the brain. Graduates are not better people just because they have letters after their names.  And there are many people training to be plumbers or joiners who will have good satisfying jobs.  However, the inconvenient truth is that there are lots of Polish and Eastern European plumbers who are happy to come here and the work for very modest pay.   That’s unfair on many UK tradesmen who find it hard to compete – but it’s not going to change.  And the service industries, that took over from manufacturing and mining, are even worse. 

    Small cold northern post industrial economies live on their wits and their capacity to learn.  Look at Norway, Finland, Denmark, who keep higher education free because they see it as an investment in the future – an essential one.  If we reintroduce fees, and force students into taking on even more debt then thousands of young Scots will simply decide it’s not for them.  But it’s still true that the more you learn, the more you earn.  And that applies as much to nations as individuals. 

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


9 thoughts on “Let’s close Glasgow University. Who needs degrees anyway?

  1. Have stopped listening to "Kaye in her box talking about what I want to talk about" on radio labour in Scotland. Try listening to Radio Wales at 12.00pm phone in a completely different quality class. All I have heard and read about Muscatteli is that he is not fit to run a childrens party let alone a Uni.

    Posted by cynicalHighlander | February 10, 2011, 9:12 pm
  2. Well Iain, although I am a staunch supporter of free university education, I think there needs to be a serious discussion as to whether degrees really are all they are cracked up to be. I wrote a blog a couple of months ago detailing my views on just how worthwhile degrees actually are and some examples of useless degrees I know, so i won't repeat it here. But put it this way: I'm currently involved in training people to go offshore to work on oil platforms, and I am confident these people are easily earning double what I earn. These are people who have largely never been to university, and yet here's me, effectively with two degrees, doing a very averagely-paid job. There are extenuating circumstances, but I've long felt that all a degree is good for is getting your foot in the door (especially after your first job, where all people care about is your previous employment, and not your education). Is that really all a degree should boil down to – a very small (potential) nudge up the career ladder?Just because certain employers have started demanding degrees as minimum requirements does not mean that they are right to do so. Are we really supposed to think that nurses could not learn all they need to know on the job? Does having a degree in photography really prove someone is more capable of taking good photographs than a lifelong photography hobbyist? And I can tell you for a fact that the best computer programmers are those that learnt what they know outside of university – I even studied with one who was doing his degree purely for the sake of getting the degree, and not to further his computing knowledge. He needed the degree to prove to employers that he was a capable programmer, because despite being brilliant at it before he even set foot in a university, computing jobs all ask for a degree as a minimum requirement.University should be for learning – enhanced job prospects should just be a handy side effect, rather than the main purpose. Somewhere down the line, we've lost sight of what makes education so truly great.Speaking of Muscatelli, there's an interesting little post by Richard Thomson's blog.

    Posted by Doug Daniel | February 11, 2011, 2:13 am
  3. "Modern apprenticeships and vocational qualifications have a great deal to offer."Of course they do, arguably more than a degree in some cases.I think part of the problem is the perception of 'vocational' learning as one step away from the old YTS. 'Vocational' learning could and does take account of the fact that, at the end of the day, the object is to be better skilled rather than better educated – learning to do a job rather than learning for learning's sake. Beyond that, there is no reason why vocational courses should not be as challenging as a traditional, 'academic' degree. Most 'creative' degrees (Film, various IT courses, design) could easily be taught 'vocationally' and many are.The important thing about vocational teaching is that has to create opportunities for working as well as learning – hence more vocational courses are flexible and taught on a part-time or evening basis. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons they're looked down upon as being less 'intensive' than 4 years in the Student Union. This is snobbishness, pure and simple. Many people taking vocational courses are far more committed to learning precisely because they are juggling their course and their job. Time is precious when you have little of it – something that's rarely said of the average UK undergraduate.None of the above, however, should take away from the fact that there is value in learning for learning's sake. It is desperately important that we do not commodify learning. Education is a social good, in and of itself. A better educated society is wealthier, more productive, suffers less crime and lives longer and more healthily than a poorly educated one. We must never let the debate over funding learning get away from the fact that learning funds us – insofar as it supports just about everything our society needs in order for us all to live happy, fulfilled lives.

    Posted by Bandages For Konjic | February 11, 2011, 2:57 pm
  4. cynical.." All I have heard and read about Muscatteli is that he is not fit to run a childrens party let alone a Uni."George Laird used to comment on him a lot. Hope he hasn't woken up with a horses head in his bed as I've not seen him so much these days.

    Posted by where's george ? | February 11, 2011, 5:02 pm
  5. Hmmmm, the thing is Iain, you suggest here that a university education automatically gives the employer a quality employee. Sorry but you couldn't be more wrong: many arrive with appalling standards in English and numeracy. How can we justify the costs when the end product is generally pretty awful? The even worse news is that many with poor skills in the aforementioned subjects go on to teach. Maybe this has been going on for so long that it finally explains all the A passes being achieved in Higher English these days. The papers are being corrected by illiterates.

    Posted by Jo G | February 12, 2011, 9:36 pm
  6. where's george ?Can you please explain why Muscatteli 5 years was all for Full Fiscal Autonomy yet under the Calman stitch up income tax was all that was required. It wouldn't be on his climb up the greasy pole to the chance of getting some ermine around his neck that he has a complete about turn over something as complex as this eh?I suspect rather than inviting Ken Dodd to the childrens party he would be more likely to invite Sweeny Todd as he would then get paid twice as that is his motivation.

    Posted by cynicalHighlander | February 12, 2011, 11:38 pm
  7. Bleeding Stumps, yes indeed. I was with Glasgow District Council (as it then was) when the Thatcher rate-capping was introduced. They immediately withdrew school crossing wardens. Olé!Graffito above toilet roll holder in Scottish University: 'Sociology degrees – please take one'. However I think we may be moving into times when the more academic subjects (philosphy, history, classics) will be the more necessary. They inculcate a dangerous and desirable capacity for independent thought. As someone said, education is what you're left with when you've forgotten all they taught you.

    Posted by Vronsky | February 24, 2011, 10:46 am
  8. Who cares if Glasgow goes bankrupt? Seriously, I did Physics at Edinburgh and the material we were taught in 2nd year was what they got taught on their Masters courses. Glasgow University, like the city itself, is a dilapidated joke for 2nd raters whose time at university is irrelevant in the long run anyhow. HE funding needs an overhaul and stripping. People are free to go to the Open Uni if they want, and it is better than Glasgow anyhow.Glasgow is a dump, the indigenous people are for the most part loathsome masonic bigots who are a stain on civilised life.

    Posted by Gordon Mclean | May 9, 2011, 9:06 am
  9. Most of the uk university degrees are strongly devalued nowadays because of the way the system is financed. In fact the uk degrees worth nearly nothing internationally. I've been teaching in some leading German, US, and UK universities for quite a while and know the difference. In my company I'll never employ anyone with uk university degree.

    Posted by Anonymous | August 22, 2011, 5:13 pm

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