What Scottish professors have to fear from Nicola Sturgeon’s power grab

The SNP is binding universities closer to the state. Don’t expect it to stop there

17 October 2015

8:00 AM

17 October 2015

8:00 AM

In the grounds of Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University stands a one-tonne sculpture. Roughly hewn and about five feet high, it carries in its top corner an ill-carved sun. Beneath it are some words of Alex Salmond, half-sunk in the sandstone, as if they were the thoughts of a Scottish Ozymandias:

‘The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students.’

This clunky celebration of SNP -policy should raise a few doubts. Free higher education is not free for all in Scotland. Edinburgh can afford to pay the fees of only 124,000 students in Scottish universities. Their contemporaries might have the grades, but they must go elsewhere because Scottish universities need fee-payers from England and Wales to balance their books. More pertinently, the Heriot-Watt stone ignores the class warfare in Scottish education. To fund free university education for largely middle-class students, the SNP has hit the budgets of the further education colleges of the working class.

But the biggest question is the most basic: what the hell is a university doing plonking a lump of rock covered with party political propaganda on its campus?

Scottish universities are meant to be independent, but the SNP will not allow them to stay that way, for a reason that lies at the root of its political success and wider failure.

On the one hand, it is the best election-winning machine in Britain. It has majority control of a Scottish parliament, and possesses nearly every Scottish Westminster constituency. Its opinion-poll ratings are so high that Scotland can seem a one-party state. For all that, the SNP lost the independence referendum, the one vote it had to win to justify its existence. If it is to win next time, if indeed there is to be a next time, the SNP has to achieve what we old Marxists call ‘hegemony’: the cultural as well as the political domination of Scottish society.

To achieve hegemony, ‘opinion formers’ must assure the public that independence is the only way forward. Nationalism must become the common sense of Scottish life. If the opinion formers lack the required enthusiasm, the SNP must persuade them to think twice before speaking out.

Nationalists are not planning anything as vulgar or blatant as the march on the BBC during the referendum campaign or the abolition of academic freedom. Instead, they are quietly proposing to bring universities into line by nationalising them.

At the last minute, the SNP has slipped three clauses into the Higher -Education Governance Bill currently before the Scot-tish parliament. They give ministers the power to use secondary legislation to impose unspecified conditions on universities without consultation. Universities Scotland, which represents the principals and directors of Scotland’s higher education institutions, says that it fears the ‘control’ the SNP is amassing will lead to the Office of National Statistics reclassifying universities as ‘public’ rather than independent bodies.

This is not a mere slip of the bureaucrat’s pen. Public bodies cannot budget for deficits. They need the approval of government for major projects. In short, Scottish universities will be under SNP rule.

The SNP does not say as much. It has secured the services of one Ferdinand von Prondzynski, vice-chancellor of Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University and an academic politician who combines the most striking traits of Uriah Heep and Kenneth Widmer-pool. ‘Von Pron’, as he is called without affection by his colleagues, tells anyone who cares to listen that his family was originally of Pomeranian-Kashubian origins and can be traced back to the 14th century. Born in Germany and raised in Ireland, he was a professor of law at Hull University, moved on to Dublin City University, and finally settled in Scotland. He held up a finger to test the wind direction when he arrived in his new homeland and decided to be the SNP’s main man in the Scottish academe.

His fellow professors weren’t bad sorts, he concluded. Many were ‘genuinely intellectual and clever’. But university life had made them conservative. ‘Universities and the Catholic church are the only institutions that have survived intact since the Middle Ages,’ he declared, and it was time to put a stop to all that fuddy-duddy nonsense. University governing bodies must be democratised by having elected chairs and trade union representatives.

It sounds terribly liberal until you learn that universities already have staff representatives. The SNP proposes to grant favours to trade unions because it wants to detach them from the Labour party and increase its hegemonic control. As for elected chairs, the SNP can reasonably calculate that, given its electoral dominance, the winning candidates are likely to be sympathisers, or at the very least will deem it politic to pretend to be sympathisers.

Principals and vice-chancellors are frightened of making public criticisms. They say that Scottish civil servants and no less a figure than Von Pron himself have warned that objections to the bill must be handled carefully. On condition of anonymity, one told me that the superficially democratic argument came down to a question of power: ‘If you are a nationalist government with only one political ambition — independence — centralisation of power is a clear policy focus, and getting control of your university sector is an early priority.’

Don’t think the SNP won’t use its power. During the referendum campaign Louise Richardson, principal of St Andrews University, warned that it would be ‘catastrophic’ for the universities if a ‘yes’ vote cut them off from the research centres of the rest of Britain. The SNP bombarded her with emails demanding that she praise the Scottish government and tone down her criticisms. One astonished observer told the press, ‘She is the principal of an independent Scottish institution. You don’t expect the First Minister of Scotland to call up and try and put words in her mouth.’

The way the wind is blowing in Scotland, you will see more SNP politicians putting more words in the mouths of formerly independent academics, and more sculptures celebrating the glory of their achievements when they have done it.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Nick Cohen is the author of You Can’t Read This Book and a columnist for the Observer. He blogs at spectator.co.uk/nickcohen

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Show comments
  • misomiso

    As ever, Nick Cohen has shown himself to be one the most astute and skillful writers in UK political journalism.

    • Guest 1

      I’m with Cohen on this issue over Scottish universities (I’m a graduate of Edinburgh Uni), but, it is certainly not the case that ‘As ever, Nick Cohen has shown himself to be one the most astute and skillful writers in UK political journalism’. Have you forgotten that he was a major cheerleader for the catastrophe that was the Iraq War? And it has been, and is, a major catastrophe.

      • misomiso

        Nobody’s perfect.

  • Leftism is a societal cancer

    Hang the SNP traitors

    • Atlas

      Given the bile and aggression that comes from the violent band of xenophobes Sturgeon insists on calling a political party such an act would arguably be little more than a preemptive act of self-defence.

  • chforsyth

    “To fund free university education for largely middle-class students, the SNP has hit the budgets of the further education colleges of the working class.”

    Exactly. It needs to be more widely known.

    • Atlas

      Hence why Sturgeon wants to take control of the BBC in Scotland, to ensure such a thing can’t happen.

  • flippit

    Thing is, it doesn’t seem to matter. Scots just don’t care, or they won’t believe it, or whatever. They’re all on the wonderful helter skelter of national glory and rediscovering their identity.

    • Captain Dryland

      A Scots colleague said, when I asked him at referendum time why he thought his Yes vote was the right choice: “Well, we’ll still get shafted, but at least it’ll be by wir own kind.”

    • Rosy

      Yes we do care and the majority of us are extremely worried. What we have in Scotland is an Animal Farm situation. Unfortunately it will take some time before the SNP followers will come to their senses.

    • Kennybhoy

      Not all Scots, but a significant minority alas… 🙁

  • HJ777

    That rock is very similar to the ‘Edstone’ don’t you think?

    They are both worthless rocks since neither of the people responsible for them have any power to implement their ‘pledges’.

  • Border Guy Scot


    What is you evidence for the class warfare in Scottish Education?
    How is it manifesting itself? This sounds more like a manufactured criticism.

    Providing Free University Education to all in Scotland as many in the Scottish Parliament benefited
    from seems a choice the Scottish Government has made and supported in the main during their first term by the Scottish Conservatives I think.

    The problem in Scotland is that the Scottish Conservative,Labour and Liberal Democrats, have lost their way, in representing the people.

    The recent YouGov, poll says that 71% do not trust the Scottish Conservatives – why is that? Recent Conservative Policy is to try and make the Scottish Education System the same/similar to England – Do we want this? The country appears at the ballot box, where it really matters, to repeatedly reject this – but does the party accept this – no Ruth and the rest at the top of the SC& UP “know better “ – Aye Right.

    I, believe it or not, support the SC&UP and their general principles http://www.scottishconservatives.com/what-we-stand-for/,
    but that doesn’t mean to say I blindly follow them or the way they are presenting their policies and position, when I think it is wrong.

    Interesting article but you are missing the point. What can you do about it when the opposition
    has really no basis of an argument against it – and isnt trusted.


    • Kennybhoy

      “I, believe it or not, support the SC&UP and their general principles…”

      SNP concern troll mair like! 🙂

      • Border Guy Scot

        Oh Gee whiz, another individual who has been let down by the education system who dosen`t understand the principles of reasoned debate, and that individuals even within the SC&UP do have differences of opinion. I`ll give you be benefit of the doubt but without realising you don`t build up a reputation for being honest and truthful on the basis of personal insults and ignoring the facts that the SC&UP have not materially improved in their performance over the last 4/5 years under the current management, and no mnumber of false dawns reported by Northumberland Stree will convince anyone. I am not alone just prepared to say so, and am working within the party to try an affect change. What are you doing?

    • Hamburger

      One thing strikes me as odd. My children would be able to study in Scotland more cheaply than English children.

      • Border Guy Scot

        Its a quirk of the Devolution system and EU rules. Basically Areas of the UK have different policies on Education Fee`s. If someone from Germany come into Scotland aspects of our system apply to them. And yes you are correct.

  • rbw152

    Nick, are you still a Marxist? Or are you reformed now and the phrase ‘Old Marxist’ just refers to a previous state?

    I only ask because all you refer to in your column here is nothing unusual for a Marxist-style government. You know, more centralisation, more government control and bureaucracy etc. So I’m puzzled why you seem so alarmed by it. It’s what you want surely? And if not, then you can hardly be surprised that it’s happening.

    Anyway, this is why I would never vote for socialists in a million years. Give them an inch an they take a mile and before you know it, your country has gone full-Communist, with a siege economy, price and wage commissions, import tariffs, less liberty and all the rest of that artificial nonsense..

    On top of that, Lenin or Marx, I can’t remember which, said that socialism was an undesirable state anyway and society should move on to full communism as soon as it can. Is that what you would like too?

    • flydlbee

      You haven’t mentioned Currency Control. Wilson made such a mess of the economy that we were limited to £50 each for foreign holidays, and the customs could search you at the airport to make sure you weren’t carrying any more.

  • ohforheavensake

    No, it’s not.

    • blandings

      You were sacked. Now go away.

  • “To fund free university education for largely middle-class students, the
    SNP has hit the budgets of the further education colleges of the
    working class.”

    This is just not true. The only college courses to be axed were the short and/or lifestyle courses that the middle class used to love. The applied courses which lead to serious qualifications, to say nothing of the Highers, have not been touched. Furthermore, post-16 students get Education Maintenance Allowance, and grants are paid to post-18 students at the universities and colleges. Both EMA and grants are means tested and go to the working class who you claim are kept out of post-16 education.

    Now then, you either don’t know what the reality is in Scotland, or you are just happy to repeat Tory lies.

    Which is it?

    • blandings

      “or you are just happy to repeat Tory lies.”
      Which Tory lies is he repeating?

      • The two that I quoted from his piece – Ruthie has been saying that for years.

        I should also have pointed out that the education system here differs from England in one other aspect, namely that very many ordinary people go to college to do an applied degree rather than university for a traditional one. So it is technically correct to say that the working class don’t go to university, but that is not the same as saying that many of them do not go into HE, which is what the carefully worded sentence suggests.

  • John P Hughes

    ” ‘Universities and the Catholic church are the only institutions that have survived intact since the Middle Ages,’ he [ Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Principal of Robert Gordon University ] declared, and it was time to put a stop to all that fuddy-duddy nonsense.”
    The original four Universities date from 1418 (St Andrews), Glasgow (1451), Aberdeen (1495) and Edinburgh (1582). The more recently formed Universities created from the Robbins Report (1962) onwards are established by Royal Charter and are also completely independent. Financially they operate as charities.
    Not the Kings of Scotland, the Commissioners, Lord Advocate, and other
    administrators who ran Scotland for the monarchy under the Union of the Crowns
    and later the Union of 1707, the Secretaries of State for Scotland from 1885
    until 1999, nor the Labour-led Scottish devolved administrations of 1999 to
    2008, ever held powers to intervene in the governance of Scotland’s
    universities, or tried to obtain such powers. Yet this is now being planned.
    The current legislation, the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 2005, enacted under Labour and LibDem Ministers, gives no powers of the type being proposed and is conventional law, about the public funding of Universities and the operation of the Scottish Funding Council.
    This draft legislation is unprecedented. It would not be countenanced in England and Wales.

  • Sean Grainger

    First I just thought I am probably your only reader with a slight fondness for Kenneth W. But then Mr C I though you could tell your kraut/mick friend — which film was that in? — that the Augustiner brewery in Munich has been around since 1328.

  • John F

    This is just one part of an increasingly illiberal trend: