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.