A conservative future for Scottish universities

Glasgow Uni

This article was originally published in the Herald, on behalf of National Collective.

Andrew Marr’s appearance at the Edinburgh International Book festival in August was accompanied by a media hoo-ha following his comments on Scottish nationalism’s “anti-English” sentiments.

The resulting dull roar of counter-arguments made the rest of what he said inaudible – including some more interesting ideas concerning Scottish universities.

In his talk, Marr harked back to the good old days of Scottish higher education, when the universities offered highly respected, intellectually challenging courses, and every student was given a grounding in philosophy and rhetoric before proceeding to a specialism. It was an approach that produced students and universities of excellence, and Marr believes the tradition could be revived.

I am an organiser for a student reading group on the Enlightenment. Every Thursday evening, people wander up to Glasgow University’s philosophy building, where we gather to discuss Hume, Kant, Adorno, Diderot and many others. People listen to each other, keen to learn from the insights of fellow readers in history, political thought and literature. Some are international students, and offer perspectives from different political cultures and education systems.

What we learn there is not saddled by the restraints of modern higher education. Whereas formal classes are compulsory, we are there voluntarily to listen and contribute according to our knowledge and needs. We pursue understanding of ourselves and our world rather than principles or methodologies that equip us to solve problems determined by others. In a sense, we are doing what the Scottish universities used to do: giving ourselves the basis in philosophy that allows us the freedom to approach our education and lives from a deliberate, autonomous and individual perspective.

Meanwhile, the formal institutions that comprise the Scottish universities are a conundrum for everyone involved. Spats a few years ago regarding state influence over the courses offered, and the Scottish Government’s report into higher education governance, failed to provoke public discussion about democracy or reform. A tension remains between the Scottish university as an institution of collective integrity, shaping its own direction according to its students and academics, and the Scottish university as a public body, providing education and expertise to the people of Scotland.

Then there is the underlying reality: the market. Teaching staff often worry about how the courses they offer will be assessed according to university criteria. For example, how will a course on Rousseau benefit a student’s employability and the department’s ability to attract students who pay high fees? And how long will the catch-all answer, that the course will develop “critical thinking”, be deemed acceptable?

Could independence spark a political renewal that would improve higher education in Scotland? On a governmental level, I am fairly convinced the SNP would throw Scottish HE further into the giddying sea of the market, and hope it would float back with some favourable returns. Labour, traditionally strong proponents of accessibility, have turned their focus from higher to further education. If Labour have no control over economic policy in Scotland, they must indeed concentrate their energies on FE: to favour the funding of HE is to favour the middle class. Were Labour in control of an entire Scottish economy, they might pursue different ends, but this argument falls on deaf ears.

I am sceptical about the potential of devolutionist parties to rise on the dawn of the first day of an independent Scotland with exciting policies and visions for a new Scotland. And although I would love a benevolent state to create an accessible public university system, the priorities of political parties make this seem utopian.

One more realistic solution would be for academics and students to seize democratic control of universities through mechanisms like students unions and the Senate. Another solution, not necessarily opposed to the first, would be for members of the public and cities to exert control and declare ownership, bringing universities back to the people in a place, for their own pursuit of understanding. The educational impulses of working people in Glasgow, were they to direct the university, might take it in a very different direction. This direction, I suggest, would be a political one.

The first working-class reading groups in Glasgow were not for high philosophy, but in pursuit of socialism. In Glasgow and other industrial cities, people who did not normally read would gather to study the Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital, to understand their own social condition and ways to unite with the international movement of workers. Paulo Friere, an educationalist whose work has become particularly important in Scotland through organisations like the Adult Learning Project, believed in the primacy of political education in any education system that wishes to be “of the people”. Thus, if someone is oppressed by wage labour, they naturally seek an education that helps them to understand capitalism, socialism and collective organising – this is their own basis for understanding the world.

It would be impossible to pursue any of these ends without a public that demands them, and the referendum is an opportunity for public reflection. Systems of education can help us understand how to create an educated and thoughtful public in the next year. Self-reflection, characteristic of the old Scottish universities, requires a Scotland where individuals can get away from the media roaring about who insulted who, and think about their own values, the values of their society and how these values can be realised politically. The emancipatory, people-driven vision of Friere is harder to realise in Scotland  because the independence debate is too often fought on the centre political ground, as if it this is a general election; the vision that with independence we can realise liberty for oppressed workers and women has yet to reach most of the public.

Interestingly, both of these aspirations – a deeper debate about our values, and the pursuit of an independence for working people and women – are already the aspirations of individuals and groups in the independence movement, such as Trade Unions for Yes, National Collective, Women for Independence and the Radical Independence Campaign. These groups work tirelessly to create the space for the kind of political reflection that Scotland must attain. If a thoughtful public can emerge in the next year, Scotland will have proven itself a nation worthy of an education system to exceed the expectations of even Andrew Marr.

Amy Westwell

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