Modernising Scottish higher education or a dog’s breakfast?

This afternoon, the Scottish Parliament will debate the Post-16 Education Bill. This is a controversial measure, labelled by its opponents as a ‘dog’s breakfast’, and by its supporters as the salvation of a broken system. It has enraged vice chancellors, governing bodies and college principals, and it has been savaged in the press. Everyone expects it to pass, though, because the government has a majority and because the Cabinet Secretary for Education is fiercely committed to its success.

The Bill covers three main issues, each of which has in itself defeated earlier generations of politicians. First, it sets out proposals for merging Scotland’s colleges into 13 college regions. This process is already under way, with strong encouragement from the Scottish Funding Council.

Here, the government’s main problem – and the stumbling block that defeated past attempts to ‘rationalise’ college structures – is that Scotland’s regions are very diverse. It is relatively easy to merge the larger colleges in the urban areas, particularly in the central belt around Glasgow and Edinburgh. It is extremely difficult to merge the smaller colleges that serve the more rural and isolated communities of the north and the borders – and local politicians will fight tooth and nail to preserve the identity and autonomy of their community’s local college.

Second, the Bill includes statutory powers to secure wider access in higher education. Again, the Scottish Funding Council has effectively started this process moving through what are called ‘single outcome agreements’ which lay out the terms under which SFC agrees to fund each institution.

Again, previous administrations have attempted to secure wider access to Scotland’s universities, with limited success. Indeed, the intake in Scottish universities is rather more selective than in other UK nations and regions, as regular readers of this blog will know. So it is understandable that a confident minister, with a parliamentary majority, has decided that enough is enough. What is not clear is how the government intends to use the new powers, nor how it will enforce them. Nor is it clear how it will affect the large higher education programmes that take place inside colleges rather than universities.

Third, the Bill outlines new powers for the government to regulate university governance and management. The key proposal here is that the government will ensure that there is compliance with good practice in governance or management, which may include intervening in the appointment of governing boards.

Once more, proposals for the reform of university governance in Scotland have been around for some time. Current structures are inherited from the past, ranging from reserved places on governing bodies for representatives of the Kirk to the often tumultuous elections for a student rector, as well as the more sober lay domination of the boards of former central institutions.

The higher education sector has lobbied ferociously against this part of the Bill, which it sees as the thin end of the state intervention wedge. The problem is that the sector has patently failed to clean up its act. Most vice chancellors – and most chairs of governors – have trundled along, appointing ‘more of the same’ to their governing bodies and senior academic teams, as though the suffragettes and civil rights movements had never happened.

Much as I understand why this section is included, I’d love to see it amended. The Bill does not say what the ‘good practice’ in governance and management is that the government will secure, nor how it relates to the code of good governance that the university chairs have drafted at the government’s request. And the government has departed from the recommendations of the Prondzynski review of university governance in failing to enshrine academic freedom in law.

Much of the bill is, it seems to me, deeply democratic and egalitarian in intent. The three main proposals are all easy to justify in general terms. The problems lie, as so often, partly in the detail, which here is often poorly defined or simply ignored; and partly in the assumption that all future governments will use these new powers wisely, and not abuse them. And by passing up the opportunity to enshrine academic freedom in law, the Scottish Government has missed a trick. Nevertheless, I expect the Parliament to pass the Bill by a clear majority, with major long term consequences for Scottish further and higher education.

Daft things that happen in higher education (3)

I am examining a doctorate next week, and the university wants to see evidence of my right to work in the UK. I have already blogged about another university which asked me to bring my passport with me. Now we have a refinement of this redundant procedure: this time, they ask for “a photocopy of the front cover and photo page of your passport”.

Now, just suppose that I were in fact an illegal immigrant. Somehow I have persuaded my own employer that I have the right to work in the UK, but the doctoral student’s university does not trust my employer. In which case, why ask me to supply a photocopy – which a cunning criminal can easily ‘doctor’ (a good word to play with in the circumstances).

And a photocopy of the front cover – well, anyone who has seen an EU state’s passport knows that the outside covers do not contain a single distinguishing feature. What useful purpose can it serve? And does the doctoral student’s university keep on file hundreds of identical photocopies of passport covers?

Women and labour colonies

A variety of labour colonies sprang up in late nineteenth century Britain, usually as a way of handling the poor or the deviant. This movement was overwhelmingly male, in so far as it addressed what were seen as male problems (particularly unemployment) and recruited male participants.

Women from the middle classes might be involved as volunteers, and a small number of women worked in specialist roles in the larger colonies. And radical women certainly joined socialist or anarchist utopian colonies, though in at least one case they then rebelled against their male leaders. But very few colonies were designed to recruit women, with a couple of remarkable exceptions.

One was Duxhurst farm colony, founded by Lady Henry Somerset in 1895. Born into the landed gentry, Isobel Somerset was a forceful and passionate Christian and president of the British Women’s Temperance Association, who leased an estate at Duxhurst on behalf of the colony. Somerset believed that across the civilised world, England was ‘the only nation that has a drunken womanhood’. The colony’s founders set out to rescue women inebriates from the ‘sadness and remorse’ of their addiction, by setting them to work at bee-keeping, poultry-rearing, horticulture, basket-weaving and other rural occupations.

Britain’s class structure was replicated inside the colony. The Manor House was used to house ‘ladies’ suffering ‘from alcoholism or narcotism’, mostly sent and paid for by their families. Patients of ‘a less educated class’ were housed ‘some little distance’ from the Manor House, at a weekly fee of up to thirty shillings. Finally, ‘habitual inebriates of a still lower class’, usually sent by the courts, lived in ‘six prettily constructed cottages’, built in a semi-circle with a central building for catering and recreation, with provision for children as well as the women.

Class also dominated the thinking behind the Women’s Training Colony. Founded by a group of suffragettes and public health campaigners, the Colony opened at Cope Hall near Newbury in 1917. Most of the founding group had long campaigned against the double standards governing attitudes and legislation on prostitution, which penalised the woman but left their clients untouched.

Dr Helen Wilson, a Sheffield GP and president of the Sheffield Women’s Suffrage Society, was a typical member of the group. In her view,

The ultimate remedy [for prostitution] is the acceptance of a single standard for men and women, and the recognition that man is meant to be the master and not the slave of his body.

The War, she commented, had raised the urgency of the problem, with mass conscript armies making a bad situation worse.

Wilson and her fellow activists recruited ‘women whose lack of character and training renders them ineligible for other institutions’, aiming to train them ‘in a sense of responsibility and independence’ as well as ‘perseverance and self-control’, by isolating them and providing work. And as suffragettes, they also hoped to train the women in citizenship by leaving ‘much of the administration . . . in the hands of the colonists’.

Like many of the utopian communities, the WTC was short-lived, closing in 1919. By then, Dr Wilson and her fellow sexual purity suffragettes looked decidedly old-fashioned when set beside women who campaigned for birth control and sex education, let alone those radical spirits who sought to break altogether with conventional definitions of sexuality. They were unable to raise funds to keep the Colony alive, and the warden left to become a social worker elsewhere. There was also a gulf between the Colony’s founders (and managers) and those women whom they portrayed as ‘human wreckage’ living ‘waste lives’.

Women were, then, by no means absent from the labour colony movement. They played a role as activists and managers. Some joined and even led the utopian colonies, while Nellie Shaw chronicled the life of the Tolstoyan colony at Whiteway, which she helped found in 1899. Duxhurst survived into the 1920s, when – like other inebriate colonies – its role was subsumed into the emerging public health system.

As for the sites themselves, Duxhurst became a Village for Gentlefolk. Most of the cottages were demolished, along with the church, but a couple remain.  Cope Hall was also demolished, though it is remembered in a street name.

For an interesting blog about the WTC, and link to a Masters’ thesis, see:

Disability and research in adult learning

How do adult learning researchers treat the question of disability? Based on a keyword search, I estimnate that between 2003 and 2012, the International Journal of Lifelong Education published four papers on disability, Adult Education Quarterly published three and Studies in the Education of Adults published none.

Moreover, two of the papers in IJLE focused on the experiences of practitioners, and one in AEQ reported on a study of disability activists as activists. Admittedly, some authors will cover disability as one of several forms of exclusion or sources of identity, and I have not tried to count those.

This leaves a total of four papers which focused on the experiences of disabled learners, in three eminent journals in the course of a decade. For a research community that prides itself on its interest in equity and justice, we clearly have a long way to go.

Gender and university governance

Last week’s blog discussed the low proportion of women who sit on the governing bodies of Scotland’s universities. Over the weekend, I looked at governing boards in universities in London and Yorkshire. The good news is that things are better in these two regions. The bad news is that they aren’t all that much better.

Women governors form 30% of the total in London universities, and 34% in Yorkshire. At two universities – Leeds Met and Sheffield Hallam – there are more women governors than men. By comparison, women comprise 28% of board members in Scotland.

Six of the 26 London boards are chaired by women and three of the 11 Yorkshire boards. These women chairs include Estelle Morris at Goldsmiths and retired spook Dame Manningham-Buller at Imperial, while Jenny Abramski chairs the trustees of the University of London. Scotland has no women chairs.

I imagine that I don’t need to bang on about this. Clearly, governing bodies in London and Yorkshire are still largely male zones. They do show, though, that women are willing to join and chair governing boards, where they no doubt do as good a job as men. They also suggest that the position in Scotland is inexcusable.

This brings me neatly to a sort of postscript. If you remember, Universities Scotland claimed last week that ‘many universities have an equal gender balance amongst their co-opted members’. I emailed them last week to ask for clarification, without success. Perhaps they were referring to universities in Yorkshire.


Correction Universities Scotland contacted me this week to say that they had not received last week’s email. It turns out that I used an incorrect address. They have promised to get back to me once they have checked the information they relied on for their statement.