The case for a Scottish (Blue) Bell

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Did you know that the plants referred to as a bluebell in Scotland and the rest of the UK are different species? Campanula rotundifolia and Hyacinthoides non-scripta respectively. So what, you might say? Well it presents an interesting metaphor for Scottish higher education agencies versus the rest of the UK.

The report of the review group on UK higher education sector agencies – commissioned by Universities UK and led by Sir David Bell – has published its far-reaching recommendations for the UK development agency landscape. Yet Bell’s proposals seemingly neglected to consider any specific way forward for Scottish higher education sector. Might one imagine an alternative?

Policy divergence

In Scotland, there is a complex blend of Scottish-specific and UK-wide agencies with responsibilities for learning and teaching quality enhancement in post-compulsory education. Some of these bodies cover both the college and university sectors, whereas others are sector-specific. This is noticeably a result of Scotland’s distinctive, enhancement-led approach to learning and teaching.

There is a single funding council for colleges and universities (Scottish Funding Council, or SFC), a single agency for quality assurance and enhancement in schools and colleges (Education Scotland), and a single student development agency for colleges and universities (sparqs). Several UK-wide agencies have a devolved, distinct presence in Scotland. These include the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), Higher Education Academy (HEA), and Jisc.

It is both surprising and disappointing that the devolved nature of the UK and the diverse agency landscapes in each of the four nations are not adequately reflected in the Bell Review. This is despite the growing policy divergences between Scotland and the rest of the UK, including around student funding, marketisation, and the Teaching Excellence framework (TEF), all of which have already caused much tension and division in the sector.

UK agencies – who are trying to support the Scottish sector’s distinctive needs – are being hampered in their effectiveness in Scotland for several reasons. Their public funding from England has been significantly reduced or removed entirely, necessitating restructures, a loss of expertise, and reduced capacity. The agencies are being pulled in multiple, conflicting directions by the various UK administrations’ demands and diverging policy priorities. In an attempt to recoup their losses, agencies are now seeking international income generation opportunities, which sometimes puts them in competition with the very universities they are supposed to support.

The present arrangement also creates confusion between agencies of their respective responsibilities, sometimes leading to jostling for position and duplication of effort. This has been most noticeable with the Scottish Quality Enhancement Themes, which are led and co-ordinated by QAA Scotland but with support from sparqs and HEA. If we were creating a Scottish sector agency infrastructure today, it is highly unlikely that we would come up with this arrangement.

Agency colleagues spend considerable time and effort developing positive working partnerships and negotiating the boundaries for particular initiatives. Though on the surface things may appear to work well, after thirteen years of Scotland’s Quality Enhancement Framework (QEF) the issues have never really been resolved and tensions still exist. University managers are often heard to express frustration – both individually and collectively – at the resultant inefficiencies.

Time for change

Given the strong enhancement-led ethos of the Scottish universities sector, allied with student partnership, there is a strong case for the Scottish Government to consider reviewing QAA, HEA, LFHE, and sparqs. There should be the scope to create a single higher education-specific agency which oversees academic quality, enhancement, leadership, and student engagement. Education Scotland could even be expanded to mirror the scope of this new agency in the college sector, and both agencies could even by overseen by a joint board. Maybe this idea is too radical, maybe it is not radical enough but let’s have that conversation and debate further while we have the chance!

I would encourage the Scottish Government, universities, colleges and the agencies to be bold. It’s time to grasp this nettle and be proactive in co-developing a sector agency solution that is right for Scotland. One that is more efficient and effective than we currently have, and which delivers better value for public money.

 

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