Scottish and Welsh Higher Education

by Harry on April 25, 2004

Chris’s post on higher education in the UK has reminded me of an idea I devised when I was experiencing the regime of UK Higher Ed. Numerous UK academics are dissatisfied with their working conditions in exactly the way that Chris’s correspondent is, though not all of them would feel comfortable decamping. If I were a member of the Welsh Assembly or Scottish Parliament I would be very tempted to capitalize on this. I’d try to get a long-term commitment for funding a small new academic institution in whichever country I was in, which would provide an elite undergraduate and graduate education to a small number of students (at first), and would, by providing much happier working conditions and slightly better incomes, provide a magnet for high-quality academics in English institutions (whom I would pursue aggressively).

Cardiff, Edinburgh, and Glasgow all have excellent communications and transport infrastructures. Anecdotally I know that a good number of Welsh (and, I presume, Scottish) students already spurn Oxbridge to remain in their own country for college (is there actual research on this?): the mark of success would be increasing these numbers, and, perhaps, competing for international students too (since international students would pay higher fees — and given the low cost of living in Wales, at least, and 3, rather than 4, year courses, these institutions could compete with good private liberal-arts colleges in the US). It should be relatively easy to succeed in getting high-quality faculties in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, with slightly better incomes and much better working conditions, especially if the institutions were proximate to the parliament and assembly; and even in the sciences central government could not make the scientists ineligible for EU or private funding.
Why bother? Elite institutions might have economic benefits in the private sector, by attracting high-tech industries etc. Perhaps more importantly, they might attract talented students some of whom would then stay in the area for at least some of their careers. Perhaps most importantly, though I hesitate to attribute such base motives to people as fine as the AMs and MSPs, if it worked it would be a sock in the eye to the English.



themoabird 04.25.04 at 3:42 pm

“Numerous UK academics are dissatisfied with their working conditions”

Poor little bunnies. Perhaps they should work in a factory instead.

How many applications are there per academic job, I wonder?


Nasi Lemak 04.25.04 at 3:44 pm

Actually there are already very few Scottish students at Oxford or Cambridge, compared to about ten years ago (when I would guess they were about 10% of the undergraduate body – unfortunately the only data I can find is post-1997) – about 2% of those offered a place, and those relatively likely not to take up that place. I can think of only one Scottish student I have taught in the past four years (out of several hundred). I think this is largely a function of the divergence in funding, now that Scottish students have to pay tuition fees to study in England but not in Scotland.

Equally, my friends at Scottish universities say that their political climate is much more interested in HE free at the point of delivery than in “elite” HE institutions.

So in sum: they probably think the sock in the eye to the English is the existence of Oxbridge + fees, and they have no problem at all keeping their best students within country. (If anything, it’s English students who are now more likely to go elsewhere for “elite” HE.) Solution to a non-existent problem. (Alas.)


harry 04.25.04 at 4:12 pm

I didn’t mean it as a solution to a problem — more something that would generate a positive benefit. The Welsh don’t have the same advantage as the Scots (but, conversely, they may not have the powers to do anything like this). And yes, of course, the politicians would have to overcome their anti-elitism which is a major barrier to developing a sensible higher education policy in all three places. That’s why I framed it in terms of ‘I would’, offering it to those politicians who can think of ways of overcoming their colleagues’ antipathy. (Why is it that politicians who want to put money into having the worlds best athletes, footballers, tennis players, etc, are opposed to doing the same for academics, the most successful of whom get paid a fraction of what the most successful tennisplayers get paid?)


Nasi Lemak 04.25.04 at 5:03 pm

Because sporting success is an important part of national self-esteem. Whereas academics are crackpot boffins with strange clothing and odd habits, aren’t they? (I know I am.)

I have to say I’m very sympathetic to the basic idea, but it’s in terms which are entirely alien to British government – the notion that one would even want to do this, that there is any problematic anti-elitism to overcome, has never been part of political debate from any political party in the fifteen or so years that I’ve been paying attention. e.g. I think you’re more likely to end up with an institution designed to help Scottish academics compete with the best English academics than you are to get an institution which aims to recruit the best English academics.

(I will try to find comparative figures for Scottish and Welsh entry to Oxford over time, in partial response to your request for “actual research”.)


Matthew McGrattan 04.25.04 at 5:29 pm

There are vanishingly few Scots at Oxford.

Over the past 4 or 5 years I’m only aware of a couple [including me] that have passed through my college as graduate students out of perhaps 500 – 600 and the graduate intake is massively less Anglo-centric than the undergraduate one.

A good part of it I assume is to do with the fees issue but also because (and this will no doubt be controversial) Glasgow and Edinburgh are just much cooler places to live than Oxford.

Cheaper, better, bigger flats, bigger cities, better pub/club/music scene, etc. etc. And the undergraduate education at any of the big 3 or 4 Scottish universities (and I speak as someone who has studied at Edinburgh, Glasgow and Oxford and taught a bit at the latter) is more or less equal to Oxbridge.

There’s also the impression that many Scots have that Oxford (and Cambridge) are full of public school educated toffs who look down their nose at Scots (with their tell tale accents and wierd ways)… it’s maybe not an entirely fair impression but it’s not entirely incorrect either.

Also, and this is not trivial, a lot of Scots actually really like Scotland.

You factor all those things in together and there’s a pretty decent incentive to stay in Scotland (and perhaps come to Oxford or Cambridge for graduate education if an academic career beckons…). I don’t think, historicall, even before the fees issue that a great many Scots studied at Oxbridge.

Rather more Scots teach there…


michael otsuka 04.25.04 at 5:29 pm

“Poor little bunnies. Perhaps they should work in a factory instead.”

See the following about the University of Birmingham molecular biologist who is quitting to become a gas fitter:


Raj 04.25.04 at 6:41 pm

Surely, with scotland the on different education system is a factor.


Nasi Lemak 04.25.04 at 8:21 pm

I was in Oxford before fees and there were plenty of Scots.


Nasi Lemak 04.25.04 at 8:21 pm

I was in Oxford before fees and, if my memory serves me right, there were plenty of Scots.


harry 04.25.04 at 8:31 pm

Don’t forget the Welsh…


Nasi Lemak 04.25.04 at 9:12 pm

Damn double posts. Sorry – I’m sure I changed this after pressing preview, not after pressing post.


Jo Wolff 04.25.04 at 10:30 pm

I know that this discussion is about academia in general, rather than Philosophy alone, but the trend in Wales is the opposite. Swansea is the latest to announce plans closing its department, leaving Cardiff as the remaining significant presence in Philosophy in Wales.


Matthew McGrattan 04.25.04 at 11:46 pm

Re: Nasi Lemak’s comments above…

Really, I’m surprised. I was always given the impression, and had certainly read somewhere that for a precise citation> before I came to Oxford that Scots were disproportionately under-represented at Oxford.

However, I came here in 1998 so it’s possible my impression is skewed and there may also be a college-based element. It’s quite possible that my college has less Scots than others so while there are lots of us here, I just don’t go around meeting them…


Matthew McGrattan 04.25.04 at 11:49 pm


Stupidly used angle brackets which browsers think is HTML.

Comment should have read “and had certainly read somewhere (how’s that for a precise citation) before I came to Oxford that…”


Simstim 04.26.04 at 10:05 am

The National Assembly in Wales are expecting the UK govt. to concentrate research funding in about 10 universities across the UK. They are trying to ensure that Cardiff is amongst that top ten. For starters the University in Cardiff is merging with the College of Medicine. Plus the Assembly, whilst not in as such a strong position financially or politically as the Scottish Parliament, is dragging its feet on fees.


From someone working in a Welsh university 04.26.04 at 11:35 am

Actually, in the Welsh case the opposite brain frain will happen.

Higher education spending for English universities is already higher overall and will increase furthermore with the introduction of top-up fees.

In contrast, the Welsh Assembly just agreed to a real-term cut in research spending for the Welsh universities.

With the introduction of higher fees and further redistributive effects (from bottom to top) due to the RAE system, my expectation is that a few English universities will soon outshine their British counterparts quite considerably.

Look out in particular for universities like Bristol, Birmingham, Sheffield and York who are already narrowing the gap to Oxbridge at the top and widen the gap to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Cardiff an the bottom.


Simstim 04.26.04 at 12:33 pm

One difference, at least from what I’ve heard from some Scottish academics, is that whilst Wales is focussing its efforts on Cardiff (at least for research), the Scots are being more equitable in how they dish money out to their universities.


Nasi Lemak 04.26.04 at 4:52 pm

Matthew – I really don’t think, from memory, that Scots were under-represented in Oxford in the early 90s. I can’t find any figures, but would anecdote that five of the thirty or so people I knew best were Scottish, and I wouldn’t think that was massively disproportionate to the university as a whole. Now, of course, you’re right, place totally devoid (as was Cambridge in 2000-1). It’s been like this after 1997. I will try to find figures and return to this thread tomorrow to post them…


Matthew McGrattan 04.27.04 at 12:54 am

Nasi – Thanks.

5 out of 30 would be over rather than unde-represented given the relative populations of Scotland and England. Seems like there really has been a big shift post-1997.


Nasi Lemak 04.27.04 at 10:32 pm

Well, there you go. I was horribly, horribly wrong – the figures have been 2-3% give or take since time out of mind. (1988 in my case.) I must have just hung out with Scots out of subconscious preference, or my college was unusually full of them, or something.

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