Why History Matters: an academic trade unionist’s contribution to the von Prondzynski debate

By Terry Brotherstone

A new radical journal launched by St Andrews students, alluding in its intriguing title to a left-wing – and Scottish – political past, is very welcome. The university, Scotland’s oldest, is sometimes seen as a slightly remote peninsula only accidentally connected to the mainland of the Scottish body politic. And, politically, not too long ago it was known mainly as a breeding ground of Thatcherism. Times, perhaps, they are a’changing. It’s an honour to be asked to contribute.

Elsewhere in this inaugural issue, Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski writes about his report on the reform of Scottish university governance, which Cabinet Secretary Michael Russell presented to the Holyrood parliament earlier this year. As the nominee of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) on the panel that worked with von Prondzynski, I want to say something about the role of the unions in the discourse about the future of higher education (HE). And this will lead me to my main point: that in deciding on the future trajectory of Scotland’s universities, history matters.[2]

The Scottish Government’s decision to set up the von Prondzynski panel did not come out of the blue. Before the 2011 Holyrood election, which produced the surprise result of an absolute majority for the Scottish National Party (SNP), there had been a number of developments in Scottish universities, notably – but far from exclusively – at Glasgow, where the principal was very publicly at odds with both academic staff and some very creative student activists, and at Abertay, where there was an unhappy dispute between a retiring principal and the governing body. These things called into question the effectiveness of how higher education institutions are being run. Moreover politicians, including government ministers, had queried the way in which the salaries of principals  have grown exponentially so that many are far in excess of the First Minister’s and well over the horizon for most lecturers, research workers and support staff. A further issue was that, in the run-up to the election, university principals and their allies had mounted a strong campaign to persuade the Government to abandon its ‘no-fees’ policy and introduce a Scottish version of the variable fees (or graduate contributions) that were thought to be about to afford universities in the rest of the UK a competitive financial advantage. As all the political parties (except the Tories) fell into line with the SNP’s ‘free’ (at least from tuition fees) HE policy and this proved popular with the Scottish electorate, it seemed clear that the principals were singing to a tune that had not been composed in Scotland.

More significant than this immediate political background however – and important in explaining the nature of the panel Cabinet Secretary Russell appointed to advise him – was the work the unions had been doing to promote critical public discussion about the nature and role of universities in Scotland today. Since devolution – and the devolution of higher education policy took place in the early 1990s, almost a decade before the establishment of the Holyrood parliament – the Association of University Teachers Scotland, now the University and College Union Scotland (UCU Scotland) and the University Lecturers’ Association of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS/ULA) have been proactive not only in their core function of representing the immediate interests of their members but also in wider debates about policy.

 When the Nationalists first came to office in 2007, UCU Scotland grasped the opportunity to promote a discussion about how the particularities of Scotland’s educational history might productively inform present-day debate. We are regularly told that universities now have to survive in the competitive and complex world of global capital, a world increasingly dominated by the neoliberal assumptions that transformed the UK so aggressively in the Thatcher years. Yet universities, for all their need to be part of the international world of knowledge, exist in their own place. Scotland, for a small country, has made an important contribution to higher education history. Study of it provides no simple or easy answers to today’s policy dilemmas, but it should not be ignored.

The work the unions did to contribute to political discourse about the trajectory of Scottish HE, included the staging of two major conferences in Edinburgh – the first, in 2008, called Intellect and Democracy (I&D); the second, in 2011, on The Future of Scottish Higher Education (FSHE). The latter was a joint UCU Scotland and EIS/ULA event. Both can still be consulted, through written report or on the web – see the UCU Scotland website at http://www.ucu.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=5240. It’s interesting, I think, to do so in the light of the von Prondzynski discussion.

I don’t know how carefully the Cabinet Secretary or his civil servants have studied them (the I&D report was submitted to him and to the Governance Review panel), but the point is that these discursive exercises informed the more conventional lobbying work the unions were doing to draw Government’s attention to the feeling in HE institutions that underlying the success story university managements tell uncritically – and no one denies that there are very real and important successes – is a countervailing alternative narrative. This is told by many, probably the majority of, staff – and is a story of overwork, increasing precarity of employment, stress and, perhaps above all, exclusion from significant decision-making. A culture of ‘meaningful consultation’, it has been said, has been replaced by one of ‘dismissive superiority’; necessary good management has been supplanted by managerialism; collegial institutions are run more and more like business corporations.

The first remarkable aspect of the von Prondzynski panel was how representative it was. It is difficult to imagine a similar advisory group in England including, alongside a university principal and a chair of a governing body, a student leader, an elected Rector and a trade union nominee. The SNP itself, facing an earlier crisis in its relationship with the universities in 2007, had confined its consultation to the principals’ body Universities Scotland and the Funding Council. This welcome recognition of the totality of the university community – and von Prondzynski’s admirable willingness to take the range of opinion expressed seriously – obviously led to a different and I think more interesting Report than a body of managers, governors and public officials would have produced. It was also in line with the approach that the university unions had adopted, which tried to locate the HE debate in the context of Scotland’s ‘public service ethos’, defined by the (Campbell) Christie Report on the public services produced  earlier for the Government by a former general secretary of the STUC.

Successive devolved governments have been anxious to be seen to work with the unions – there is a ‘memorandum of understanding’ that there will be consultation on key policies between the present Government and the STUC – and the composition of the von Prondzynski panel reflected this. The recognition of the value of consulting unions – rather than vilifying them in the Thatcherite manner still prevalent at Westminster – is another aspect, within the UK, of a distinctively Scottish modus operandi. In line with all this, one of the von Prondzynski Report’s most important proposals is that trade unions should be directly represented on university governing bodies. This would be one way of aligning university governance more directly with the Scottish social ethos. It would help to redress what some represented to the von Prondzynski panel as a ‘dual democratic deficit’: externally the way universities are run lacks transparency to the wider public, and internally, there is an on-campus perception that decision-making has ceased to be consultative and collegial and is increasingly top-down and managerial.

In suggesting a first step to addressing the internal aspect of this deficit, the von Prondzynski Report also draws on Scottish tradition. It had been suggested that collegiality might be restored to university governance by having principals appointed by campus election – as at Trinity College Dublin. The panel on reflection decided that more international evidence than it had the time or resource to examine would have been necessary to make this an immediate recommendation (though the Report does propose that the Government should establish a permanent research centre into Scottish HE not least to ensure that the information, which would make more radical proposals such as this a practical option for future reformers, will be readily available). But Scotland already has an elective element in its system of university governance – the Rector, elected in the four oldest institutions (St. Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh) and in Dundee, who, in all the former, is expected to chair the court, or governing body. Were this practice to be extended to all universities, and the chairs elected by all staff and students (whether called ‘rector’ or not) were given the resource to ensure that decisions are made transparently, following informed discussion amongst all court members, confidence in the running of universities both amongst campus staff and the wider public could be much improved. And the electoral process itself, every three or four years, could lead to valuable scrutiny of institutional planning and management.

These are specific examples of the way in which Scotland’s distinctive traditions can be the basis of valuable up-to-date reform to ensure that meeting the challenges of global competition is approached in a collegial and socially acceptable way. But I want to move on to a broader argument and two contributions to the union conferences I’ve drawn attention to are helpful here. The first relates to the opportunity we have in Scotland thanks to the historical conjuncture we have been brought to by the ‘constitutional debate’ (the expected 2014 independence referendum) to make a distinctive contribution to the UK-wide, and even international, discourse about the future of HE; the second to how we should use history critically and creatively to make that contribution.

Stefan Collini, the Cambridge professor of intellectual history who has been a prominent critic of successive Westminster governments’ HE policies over the past decade and more, agreed to speak at the 2011 FSHE conference because he saw value in looking to what is going on north of the border as a counterpoint to the Tory-LibDem Coalition’s policy – announced, as he said, with ‘no warning and no democratic discussion’ – of which experts have said: ‘no country has, in modern times, taken such a leap in the dark with its higher education system.’ Collini’s conference presentation about this policy, his articles available on the London Review of Books website and his recent historical essay What are universities for? (Penguin, 2012) all make compelling reading. What’s more important here however are his comparative remarks – from an English perspective – about the Scottish Government policy as enunciated in its 2010 so-called ‘Green Paper’ on post-school education, Putting Learners First.

Viewed in historical perspective, Collini argued, the main significance of the Westminster Coalition’s ‘leap in the dark’, lies not so much in the widely-referred-to ‘rise in fees’ and its likely effect on recruitment and social mobility, but more in the ‘radical transformation of the system in which public funding for teaching will be replaced by contributions paid retrospectively by graduates;’ and the ‘more or less complete withdrawal of the block grant’. The argument should not primarily be about whether or not the funding arrangements now in place in the RUK will mean graduates paying more or less over a lifetime than they would have done under the previous arrangements. The key issue is one of principle and this is why the divergence between the Scottish and English approaches to HE – the historical distinctiveness of which has been brought into sharp focus by the different funding regimes put in place by the Westminster Coalition in 2010 and the Nationalist Government at Holyrood in 2011 – needs serious public debate. Behind what are often discussed – on both sides – as though they were merely different policy options, lie conflicting ideas about the relationship between university education and society.

As Collini put it, no-one should discount:

the enormous importance of the symbolic aspect of [the Westminster Government’s] policy changes … This very substantial shift from a form of public funding to a form of individual funding is bound to be read as signalling a loss of belief in the public, as opposed to the individual, value of higher education, even if ministers … affirm that this is not the case.


The larger problem … concerns the whole language of justification that currently dominates public discussion of universities… [T]he greater part of public discourse … reduces to the following dispiriting proposition: universities need to justify getting more money and the way to do this is by showing that they help to make more money. This presents itself as realism, but it sells the case short – in particular, the case for having an educated population rather than merely an employable workforce.

 Anyone who shares Collini’s opposition to this false ‘realism’ and is minded to present Scottish policy as a clear-cut alternative, however, should be wary. Turning to the Scottish ‘Green Paper’, he focused his forensic eye on its detail. It is full of many of the same unproven assumptions that have become the commonplaces of debate south of the border. Unnamed critics are cited to suggest that central funding for HE courses may ‘encourage conservatism’ and that universities more generally are ‘old-fashioned’ and lacking in dynamism. These unevidenced assertions need more confident rejection than they received in the Green Paper: Scottish politicians and public, Collini argued, ‘need to be persuaded’ that the funding of university education from general taxation ‘is an important part of the conditions favouring worthwhile innovation rather than an obstacle to it.’ And the Scottish Government’s welcome commitment to continued central funding for research, he continued, must not become contaminated by the Green Paper’s ‘rather glib phrases … about directing research funding to “national priorities”’, since university research depends on allowing scholars and scientists ‘to decide what the intellectually … important areas of research are.’

The von Prondzynski Report, while fully alert to the role universities can play in national economic revival, follows up on these points by its insistence on the essential importance of ‘academic freedom’ and ‘institutional autonomy’, and on the primacy of the former concept. Universities, the Report states, must be ‘independent public bodies’. Their ‘autonomy’ – certainly this is my view – must be protected, but not to allow managements, with the endorsement of governing bodies, to act as though they are running private businesses. The justification, and necessity, for autonomy in a democratic society lies rather in the need to defend academic freedom against the encroachments of either the state or private interests.

 Despite his caveats about the dangerous implications of the Scottish Green paper’s conventional jargon, however, Collini concluded on the positive note that defines the current opportunity north of the border to move the HE debate beyond the neoliberal assertions (‘there is no alternative’ as Mrs Thatcher dogmatically bellowed in the 1980s) emanating from Westminster. He had been dubious he said about alluding to two commonly referred to aspects of Scottish educational history: the idea of the ‘democratic intellect’, the title of G. E. Davie’s controversial, perhaps now little-read yet still influential study of Scottish universities in the nineteenth century; and the concept of the ‘lad o’ pairts’ (the poor boy enabled by the education system to progress in Scotland from parish school to university and on to a professional career). I’ll say a further word about these in a moment, but Collini’s point was that, whatever the reality behind these ideas, their very existence creates useful terms of reference for the Scottish HE policy debate today: ‘Scotland has at least one crucial advantage over England’, where ‘the intellectual and educational case for the distinctive value of universities is poorly articulated, and as a result it is not a political force with which the government has to reckon’, leading to a discourse characterised by ‘third-hand clichés about promoting economic competitiveness and training an adaptable workforce’. In Scotland, he said, there is a good deal of that as well. But, while we should avoid ‘a cheap romanticisation of the lad o’ pairts tradition’:

‘the advantage lies not just in having such a tradition to appeal to, but in the fact that it is a tradition with built-in democratic purchase … It is very cheering – and, for an Englishman these days, all too rare – to come across a sentence in an official document that declares as roundly as the Green Paper does … [that] ‘the prime responsibility [for funding HE] should lie with the state’.

It was for the Scots, Collini hoped, to translate this ‘admirable sentiment’ into ‘a workable system that shows up the narrow-minded philistinism of the “English solution” for what it is.’

 A brief comment here on The Democratic Intellect.[3] It is a book much criticised by historians for its lack of empirical rigour, but it played a major part in the 1960s in providing some intellectual backbone to the rising Scottish national movement, which in the 1950s rested substantially on a quasi-atavistic romanticism unattractive to even sympathetic intellectuals. Davie saw the universities – medieval or early modern foundations playing a much more central part in society north of the border than Oxford and Cambridge (until the nineteenth century England’s only two universities) south of it – as the institutions capable, after the division of the national Presbyterian church in the Disruption of 1843, of safeguarding Scotland’s distinct ideological identity. Their pedagogical tradition rested on the idea that philosophy was ‘the queen of the sciences’, the basis for ensuring that those proceeding to higher knowledge in particular spheres had a sense both of how those particularities relate to a more fundamental totality and of how knowledge can serve the social good. Thus would be created a morally responsible social elite – in aspiration at least drawn, through the opportunities afforded the ‘lads o’ pairts’, from society as a whole – aware of the humane utility of higher learning and science.

An ‘anglicising’ tendency, according to Davie (and this is where his thesis often takes precedent over the evidence for it), set about to overcome this valuable Scottish heritage with arguments deployed in university reform debates in the 1820s, 1850s and later, for a more specialist curriculum. But what is important is not the detail of Davie’s argument but rather the fact that it does, in a powerful way, draw attention to some real specificities in the Scottish past – the Scottish philosophical tradition was distinctive and did have an impact on higher education (internationally as well as at home) and, by the early twentieth century certainly, a (marginally) higher proportion of the eligible population went to university than south of the border. This, as Collini said, provides a context, not for the reiteration of sustaining myths, but for an independent critical discourse, today.

The critical use of history to assist in the formation of policy now was the theme underlying the contribution of another distinguished historian to the union-sponsored conferences, Edinburgh University professor, Robert Anderson – internationally celebrated as a historian of Scottish and European education – when he spoke at the 2008 I&D event. The Scots, he pointed out, ‘seem more inclined than others to appeal to their history when discussing educational policy,’ and their ‘universities have always been seen as a national system, with public responsibilities, and not as private institutions.’ He quoted the Scottish philosopher William Hamilton, who, in the 1830s – this is a statement cited and elaborated on in the von Prondzynski report – defined a university as ‘a trust confided by the State to certain hands for the common interests of the nation‘ [emphasis added].[4]

Anderson based some of his remarks about Scotland’s distinctive university history and its relevance today on an important book by the doyen of US historians of higher education, Sheldon Rothblatt. His Education’s Abiding Dilemma deals with the tension in democratic societies between, on the one hand, the requirements of liberal democracy – the nurturing of, and provision of opportunity for, individual talent; and, on the other, those of social democracy – requiring equal access for all.[5] The lad o’ pairts tradition fits essentially into the former pattern. But in the twentieth century it was adapted to dovetail with Scots’ participation in and embrace of the welfare state: the ‘higher education system we have now [Anderson explained] is a product of British policy as it has evolved since the Second World War, since the Robbins report in 1963, and since the end of the binary system (of universities and polytechnics) in 1992’.

Rothblatt’s survey is important because he treats Scotland’s universities as part of a separate system, and it should be required reading for all university managers and governors north of the border. For Rothblatt, the US, England and Scotland represent in this respect three different ‘Atlantic democracies’. As the social consensus underpinned by welfarism dissolves, Scotland debates independence, and higher education policy diverges in the nations of the UK, history, while it cannot provide answers to the common problems faced, needs to be deployed in policy debates with sensitivity to national difference.[6]

 The focus of debate about the von Prondzynski Report over the next few months will naturally be on the specific reforms in Scottish university governance it proposes. If the report is read as a whole and judged as a logical, historically-informed argument – not just cherry-picked subjectively for what particular interest groups think are good or bad ideas – I think it will be seen as an important contribution, and, if implemented in full, will improve the Scottish university system without disrupting the ongoing achievements of individual institutions. But my main argument in this essay has been a broader one.

The Report is the product of a very particular historical moment. It is defined by international, indeed global, socio-economic crisis; by unprecedented pressure from neoliberal ideologues preaching the need to fall in uncritically with the dictates of financial capital, and – in the UK specifically – by the constitutional debate that will culminate for the moment in the 2014 referendum. This is a time for universities to consider carefully their responsibility to be centres of critical autonomy, educating a new generation of citizens in an atmosphere of independent research and theoretical critique. It is a time for Scots – and all those concerned with the future of HE throughout the UK – to debate their social values and, specifically, what sort of higher education system they want. In this discourse, history is important. Studied seriously – not recited as complacency-sustaining myth – it can help to promote critical discourse about how what is distinctive in Scotland’s past can be made relevant to engaging citizens in determining the future of the nation’s, in some ways unique, universities. If the von Prondzynski Report becomes the occasion for debate about higher education that is not stymied from the beginning by the platitudinous neoliberal and bureaucratic assumptions that underlie Westminster’s current ‘leap in the dark’, it will have made a major contribution to bringing intellect to bear on what Rothblatt refers to as the dilemma of modern democracies. Whatever the ‘democratic intellect’ may have meant in the past, it’s a telling phrase with at least some roots in the realities of a particular society and a distinctive philosophical outlook. It provides Scotland with the opportunity to become a focal point in an increasingly urgent discourse about the role universities should be playing – in the interests of humanity – in this crisis-ridden world.

[1] Readers interested in this essay may also be interested in a companion piece, ‘Why Scotland matters: devolution, neoliberalism and the fight for the future of the public university in the UK’, available along with much else of interest at the website ‘For a Public University’ – <http://andreasbieler.net/for-a-public-university/>.

[2] I was chosen, I imagine, because of my experience as President from 2007 to 2009 of the main trade union representing academic and related staff north of the border, the University and College Union Scotland (UCU Scotland); as a member in 2009-10 of the General Council (national executive) of the STUC; and as an active participant in public debate about HE, particularly since the Scottish Nationalists formed their first administration in 2007. I lectured in history at the University of Aberdeen from 1968 to 2008.

[3] G. E. Davie, The Democratic Intellect: Scotland and her universities in the nineteenth century (Edinburgh, 1961); for a historian’s critique, see R. D. Anderson, Education and Opportunity in Victorian Scotland: schools and universities (Oxford, 1983), Appendix II.

[4] At the recent International Commission on the History of Universities conference at St Andrews, Anderson gave an excellent paper on Scottish thinking about universities in the modern period which will hopefully be published.

[5] Sheldon Rothblatt, Education’s Abiding Moral Dilemma: merit and worth in the cross-Atlantic democracies 1800-2006 (Oxford, 2006).


The first major public policy document to pay serious attention to the divergent trajectories in university policy in the nations of the UK is Tony Bruce, Universities and Constitutional Change in the UK: the impact of devolution on the higher education sector (Higher Education Policy Institute, 2012).

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