Last of the Westland Whigs

In the late 17th century, the 'Westland Whigs' were the radical descendants of earlier Covenanters who had defied the absolutist rule of Stuart kings in south west Scotland.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Glasgow University Dumfries Scottish Parliament Debate 16 June 2011

Scottish Parliament Education Debate 16 June 2011

Time: 10.07 to 10. 13
Aileen McLeod (South Scotland)
(SNP): I welcome the opportunity to participate in this morning’s debate. The future of our higher education institutions is of considerable importance to my constituents throughout the south of Scotland. One of our flagship higher education institutions in the south-west is the Crichton campus in Dumfries. I wish to use the debate as an opportunity to highlight the very special significance of the Crichton campus for the future prosperity of the entire region.

In 2007, the newly elected SNP Government fulfilled its pledge to save the Crichton by providing additional funding. Since then, and with the support of the SNP Government, the Crichton has evolved as a dynamic and innovative model of academic collaboration, which has been to the benefit of its students and the economy of the south-west of Scotland as a whole. I congratulate everyone involved in making the Crichton campus a success. The further development of the Crichton campus should be a priority not only for the academic partners involved but for all those who, like me, want the wider regional economy of the south-west to grow and prosper.

It is incontrovertibly the case, I believe, that the presence of higher education and university facilities such as the Crichton can and does play a decisive role in raising the rate of economic growth and improving economic opportunities across an entire region. As the principal higher education cluster in the south of Scotland, the Crichton campus is a crucial resource for equipping the young people of the area with the skills that they need to find employment. The overall regional contribution that is made by the Crichton campus extends well beyond its immediate role as an educator. Equally significant is the contribution that it makes across the south as an emerging centre of excellence for research and innovation activities. It is widely recognised that virtually all successful regional economies have at their centre a cluster of knowledge-intensive activities based around and driven by successful higher educational institutions.

I want the Crichton campus to continue to develop as the regional knowledge-intensive cluster in the south of Scotland, and to act as a magnet attracting more inward investment to the region. The Crichton academic partnership is well placed to realise that potential, given the right vision and commitment.

The landscape of research funding for our universities is changing. There is a growing awareness that basic research needs to be augmented by actions that improve the dissemination of research results across industry and encourage firms, particularly small to medium-sized enterprises, to innovate in new technologies—and to enhance their competitiveness by so doing.

Nowhere is that trend more apparent than in the EU research funding that is targeted at the university sector. I fully expect the next EU research framework programme, FP8, to assign substantial funding to actions that target later stages in the innovation chain than the fundamental science-based research for which many of our older universities have global reputations. It is in that broad area of research and innovation activity that the Crichton has considerable potential to contribute to the local and regional economies of the south of Scotland.

I congratulate the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning on the considerable work that he has done to ensure that Scotland’s interests in the development of the EU eighth framework programme are being fully represented to the European Commission very early in the Brussels policy process.

I encourage all the partners at the Crichton campus, along with the local authorities, Scottish Enterprise, the Federation of Small Businesses and the wider SME population, to develop a range of activities focused on the dissemination of research and innovation in partnership with local firms, and not only in the subject areas that are already represented on the campus; they should also develop new subject specialisms and new partnerships, which will be of benefit to the entire economy of the south of Scotland. I will be only too pleased to support those partners in that endeavour, and I urge them to consider EU research and development programmes as a possible source of funding.

The University of Glasgow is currently reviewing the continued provision of the liberal arts degree in particular, and the related provision of liberal arts courses in general, at the Crichton campus. Axing the successful liberal arts degree programme could significantly reduce the educational choices that are available to students wishing to attend the Crichton at a time when demand is rising. It could also remove one of the few degree programmes in Scotland that is truly interdisciplinary in approach and content and which, as a result, provides students with a range of transferable skills that they can take to the labour market.

I have already written to the cabinet secretary setting out the concerns of my constituents, and I copied the letter to Professor Muscatelli. I hope that the university court will take those concerns on board when it meets on 22 June.

Michael Russell: I can give some reassurance to the member. I spoke to Professor Muscatelli only yesterday about the issue. Professor Muscatelli has indicated that there will continue to be access to liberal arts provision at the Crichton, although in a different way; he is very much focused on ensuring that that provision continues, and that the Crichton grows and flourishes in the way that the member indicates.

Aileen McLeod: I thank the cabinet secretary for his assurances—the Crichton should provide for liberal arts courses, particularly at postgraduate research level.

Universities are central to national and local economic development. The Crichton is central to boosting the growth, improving the employment opportunities, and increasing the resilience of the economy of the south-west of Scotland. Since 2007, the SNP Government has demonstrated its support for the Crichton.

I have a positive vision for the Crichton and I pledge my support to the staff, students and each of the institutions that are represented on the campus as they develop their strategies and seek out new sources of funding that will assist them in developing the research and innovation programmes that will contribute to the growth of the campus itself and contribute considerably to the wider economy of the south of Scotland.

Time : 10.25 -10.31
Alex Fergusson (Galloway and West Dumfries)
(Con): I am delighted to take part in today’s debate because there is no doubt in my mind that this policy area is the most important of all the policy areas that Parliament has been discussing since the election. Without an education system that is properly suited to the needs of our people and our country, other policies areas are, frankly, of little consequence. Education is the foundation stone of our society, and we Scots are justifiably proud of our tradition in that area.

However, it is also an area that faces many great and important challenges, particularly in today’s difficult times, as many speakers this morning have noted. I want to focus on one particular challenge, in which I have a considerable constituency interest as the member for Galloway and West Dumfries: the proposal by the University of Glasgow—which seems to be getting a bit of a rough time this morning—to terminate the teaching of liberal arts courses at the Crichton campus in Dumfries, whose potential was ably highlighted by Aileen McLeod earlier. I agreed with every word of her excellent speech.

The proposal to terminate liberal arts courses will be considered by the court of the university next Wednesday, and there is every indication that it will be accepted. If it is, that will be a decision that the university will come to regret, because it is widely accepted that liberal arts provide the central ethos of that unique university campus. I suspect that Professor Muscatelli’s remarks to the minister reflect the fact that Glasgow university maintains that the ethos of liberal arts will remain, through the interdisciplinary nature of other courses. However, I cannot help but agree with the staff and students when they point out that the physical absence of liberal arts students will, in itself, hugely affect the atmosphere and ethos of the campus.

The staff’s hastily constructed—I will deal with the reason for that haste shortly—response to the consultation says that, no matter what courses remain, the effect of removing the liberal arts students will be that

“the student experience will likely be very different and quite probably diminished.”

When that point was raised at a consultation meeting, the chair of the panel acknowledged that that was a risk that would have to be taken. That is quite an admission, because it suggests that the risk of the Crichton campus losing its distinctive liberal arts ethos is somehow worth taking, even though many who are far better qualified than I am fear that losing that distinctiveness could cost the campus its future. 

An e-mail from Professor Muscatelli, sent on 8 June, states:

“the consultation is about how we ensure that our academic offerings in Dumfries meet the needs of the local community.”

That suggests that the liberal arts courses are perceived as not meeting those needs. However, as one who has, like the cabinet secretary, applauded the growth and success of initiatives such as the spring fling—the Dumfries and Galloway arts festival—over the past decade, I could not disagree more strongly. Indeed, I contend that those courses play to the strengths of Dumfries and Galloway in terms of what the area has to offer today. I believe that it would be dreadfully short-sighted to phase those courses out. 

Michael Russell: I agree with a great deal of the member’s speech, but I want to make two quick points. First, he and I have worked hard to support the Crichton campus. I did so in a previous incarnation in this Parliament and I continue to be committed to the campus and believe that the liberal arts element is important to it. Secondly, I am not an emissary for the principal of the University of Glasgow, but I believe his assurance that liberal arts courses will continue to be offered, and that there is no threat to the university’s presence. Those are important reassurances.

Alex Fergusson: I share the cabinet secretary’s delight in those reassurances, but I am still concerned about the moves that might be made with regard to liberal arts courses.

The cabinet secretary might recall that in 2007 the Crichton Development Company commissioned a report from Cogent Strategies International in response to the University of Glasgow’s plan to withdraw undergraduate courses from the campus. That report stated:

“By far the greatest economic impact of the Crichton campus will be achieved”

by increasing

“the number of young people recruited to courses and graduating, which entails broadening, deepening and lengthening the educational offering.”

I contend that, without the liberal arts courses, the educational offering will be the polar opposite of broader, deeper and longer and has every chance of being narrower, shallower and shorter. That can have only a hugely negative impact on a region that already has the highest outmigration of 16 to 20-year-olds on mainland Scotland.

I do not believe that it is the role of Government to dictate what universities offer. However, I believe that Government has a role to play in ensuring that decisions of such severity and impact are arrived at only following lengthy and meaningful consultation. There is, however, every indication that this particular consultation was anything but lengthy and meaningful and that it has, in fact, allowed too little time for considered reflection. Staff received the report on 4 May, giving them only 14 days to prepare and submit a considered response to a proposal that cast doubt on some of their futures.

Further, the university has made great play of the fact that MSPs and MPs were invited to take part in the consultation. I am sorry, but I did not notice my invitation. That is, perhaps, excusable given that—as I discovered just yesterday—my invitation was issued on the first Wednesday of the short campaign for last month’s elections when, I believe, I was not even recognised as being an MSP. That cannot be right, and I do not believe that the university thinks that it is right. There are myriad reasons for calling into question the consultation process but—sadly for me, but perhaps fortunately for other members—time does not allow me to list them all. However, one thing seems to be certain: this was a consultation that definitely had a predetermined outcome. I believe that that casts doubt on the university’s long-term commitment, but I accept the cabinet secretary’s words in that regard.

I hope that the Government can reassure me that representations have been made, and I urge the cabinet secretary to suggest as strongly as possible that the decision be postponed by the university court until a genuinely full and open consultation has been held.


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