The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to comment on the Scottish Executive Lifelong Learning Department second consultation paper on the Scottish Higher Education Review. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled by the General Secretary with the assistance of a number of Fellows with substantial experience in this area.
As we noted in our response to the first consultation paper, it could be said that what is good for the competitive position of Scottish HEIs in UK, and international terms, will be good for the Scottish economy. That, in various forms of application, is therefore a crucial test for defining policy or action. In addition, given that many institutions operate in a global market, it is important that the objectives set are not parochial because higher education is international and Scottish HEIs have succeeded very much because of their UK and international competitiveness in research and in teaching quality.
The questions, as set out, suggest a number of "key challenges". The key challenge that many Scottish Universities currently have to deal with is the problem of serious under-funding. One piece of evidence for this is the number of HEI's within Scotland that have had to put in place, or are in the process of putting in place, major staff-restructuring programmes aimed at significantly reducing their overall staff costs to a level that can be afforded. The specific issues identified in the second consultation paper are now addressed below:
Teaching and Learning
Do you agree that the key challenges in teaching and learning for higher education institutions over the next decade will be developing new student markets, and making the higher education they provide available on more flexible terms? Where will the greatest opportunities, and the largest obstacles, in meeting these challenges lie?
Communications and information technology has the potential to re-shape the learning process in the interests of increasing access, flexibility and learner-centred approaches. Similarly, E-learning could have an important role in increasing the flexibility in learning delivery, so long as they are pedagogically based (for example the Heriot-Watt SCHOLAR programme) rather than technology driven.
Do you agree that increasing the proportion of students from the lower socio-economic groups is now the key challenge in widening access in Scotland? What are the most important actions the Executive could take to meet that goal?
As noted in our response to the first round of consultation, increasing the proportion of entrants to HE from the poorer socio-economic groups is also an issue of financing students from that background, for example in terms of maintenance grants, where the remedy lies principally with the Executive itself. There is also an issue of academic preparation during secondary school, where pressures are put on HE either to remedy educational short comings that should have been addressed in secondary education or to lower entry requirements to accommodate such short comings. The Society believes that the first necessary action must be to improve the quality of the academic offering at secondary school level and that HE should not be expected to compensate for any deficiencies of the latter. There is also an insufficient provision of vocational education in institutions which should be catering specifically for it. Finland, for example, has recognised the error of the continuing expansion of HE and is cutting back, while increasing resources in FE and polytechnics and in school science teaching.
Do you agree that Scotland should seek to develop stronger links between labour market needs and higher education provision? What are the key issues to consider in seeking to develop those links?
The importance of dialogue between employers and providers is well recognised and occurs at all levels from Government bodies to individual university departments and research groups interacting with industry and business. While the universities are well aware of their responsibilities to prepare students for their subsequent careers, it should be remembered that higher education institutions (HEIs) educate their graduates. They do not train them to work in one particular industry sector and certainly not for one specific company.
Many academic institutions run special postgraduate courses to widen experience of students outside their subject area and there are activities/initiatives proceeding at research group level through to sector wide level. Many postgraduates also interact with industry because of the nature of their award (e.g. in Teaching Company Schemes and CASE awards).
Scottish universities are well aware of the need to develop high level skills, many of them research based. There are, however, a number of challenges in developing HEI education and training for industrial researchers in what are identified as priority areas. As there is no general structure for interaction between employers and providers, SMEs appear to have a particularly ineffectual relationship with HEIs or the higher education sector as a whole. With 4-year degree courses, there can also be long lead times before HEIs produce the graduates with the required skills. Planning timescales within industry, however, are usually over a 1-3 year period. These factors make it difficult for HEIs to respond to perceived skills needs and shortages by, for example, new undergraduate courses.
Do you agree the importance of increasing the numbers of overseas students, either as distance learners or coming to study here and the need for Scottish wide co-operation to do this?
The reputation and reach of Scottish higher education can be dramatically extended in the international arena by well-designed distance learning. Such schemes have the potential to help develop new markets, access new revenue streams and position Scottish education at the forefront of the rapidly globalising knowledge industries.
Research and Knowledge
Do you agree with the aim that in a decade from now: obvious areas of strategic weakness should have been addressed; there should be better networked groups of academics in linked research distributed across Scottish institutions, and beyond; institutions should be collaborating more strategically to maximise the effectiveness of investment in research? What are the opportunities and obstacles to pursuing this aim?
Collaboration can provide additional benefit, but it is not a replacement for adequate core funding. It is also somewhat unrealistic to expect collaborative use of a new facility funded in a single institution when the facility’s capacity is being used fully by the single institution. Collaboration requires encouragement and facilitation and only works well when the academic and managerial basis is well founded. The host institutions, therefore, should be properly funded to run the facilities, including funding provision for hosting visitors from other institutions.
In terms of improved networks of researchers, the Society agrees that this is an important area, and it will be important that such networks are not constrained by geographical boundaries. It will also be important to recognise that the operation of networks has a cost in terms of both time and money, both of which need to be provided.
Overall, in the setting of goals and objectives by the Scottish Executive and SHEFC, there will be the need for a careful application of appropriate metrics. If the wrong ones are chosen, the wrong behaviour will be encouraged.
Do you agree that the other key research challenge for the decade is the need to continue to encourage and support innovation and creative thinking about knowledge transfer? Again, what are the opportunities and obstacles?
Knowledge transfer and commercialisation potential depends on universities’ fundamental knowledge generation and research capability. It is, therefore, important to provide adequate support for an internationally competitive outward looking research base in Scotland. It is also important to recognise that all stakeholders, including the higher education institutions (HEIs) themselves, need to see the benefits from knowledge transfer. Comments are sometimes made about the speed of the knowledge transfer process, and the inability of universities to deliver suitable deals to business. Whilst there are instances of universities being unable to deliver in such circumstances, there are also many examples of Scottish (and UK) companies who are not geared up to undertake high technology deals.
In addition, whilst there are good reasons for the movement of researchers from Higher Education into the private sector as part of the knowledge transfer process, there needs to be safeguards that the core research base is not denuded of talent as a consequence. Aside from the broader pay and reward systems, the introduction of (properly funded) schemes to support research teams when a key researcher(s) leaves to form a company would be beneficial. Other countries, such as Ireland and the USA, are actively attracting high quality people to come to work in relevant sectors, in both universities and companies. In such cases the Government is supporting the development of key strategic areas through the recruitment of excellent researchers and this approach could be considered for Scotland.
Looking specifically at the commercialisation of research, where is action most urgently needed, if we are to maximise the impact of higher education?
At the recent "Managing Intellectual Property in Scottish Higher Education" event at the RSE on 28 June 2002, the following areas were identified as issues for action:
From March to August 2001 the RSE also organised a series of Science Base Research and Commercialisation workshops across Scotland. The key recommendations from the summary event of these workshops included:
The ‘Proof of Concept’ and RSE/Scottish Enterprise Enterprise Fellowship schemes have also produced an impressive array of projects at a relatively low cost and should continue to be supported. Additional funding for core patenting within HEIs could similarly be considered.
Governance and Management
The RSE believes that University Courts and Governing Bodies in Scottish HEIs are working reasonably well. Membership of a Court or Governing Body should, however, be drawn from as representative a range as possible of organisations and interests and have regard to an appropriate balance with regard to skills, gender, ethnicity, disability and other groups.
There are particular issues relating to staff development and management of estates. Do you agree that these should be the key areas of concern for this review?
Staff represent the highest cost element to HEIs and the sector’s estates represent the major asset base. Therefore, these two issues are fundamental areas of concern, but consideration of these areas should be broader than staff development and estate management. Attention should also be given to the issue of the relatively poor pay of academic staff in Britain (and Scotland). Universities must be able to offer attractive, competitive salaries if they are to deliver the excellent, world class higher education system the Executive wishes to see. Nevertheless, the proposals for improving the training staff for changing roles and improving academic and administrative career management are to be welcomed. Consideration should also be given to the career management of academic related and support staff with the further professionalisation of such staff, to include training and staff development opportunities and proper reward strategies.
In terms of the sector’s estates, there has been an enormous under-investment in the sector's physical estate, over the past 20 years. This needs to be addressed as a priority and as part of any strategy about managing estates.
In responding to this inquiry the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: Review of Postgraduate Education (February 1999); Funding for the Future: A Consultation on the Funding of Teaching (March 1999); Devolution and Science (April 1999); The Independent Committee of Inquiry into Student Finance (September 1999); A Framework for Economic Development (March 2000); Funding for the Future: Stage 2 Consultation Paper on the Funding of Teaching (April 2000); Research and the Knowledge Age (April 2000); A Science Strategy for Scotland (July 2000); The Are We Realising Our Potential Inquiry (July 2000; January 2001); Postgraduate Support (August 2000); Review of Teaching Funding (March 2001); Review of Research Policy and Funding (April 2001); Review of the supply of scientists and engineers (August 2001) and Scottish Higher Education Review (January 2002).