Article by John Blundell in The Scotsman

SCOTLAND’S universities have ducked the rumpus about “top-up fees” currently raging on the front pages in England. Perhaps the Scottish Executive displayed a sort of brute sagacity in feeling that it could not attack this great middle-class subsidy.

Our universities inhabit a wide spectrum from the ancient and pretty St Andrews to the almost intangible cyber-versity in Inverness. Edinburgh is as august as any in Europe while it might be fair to refer to our most humble new universities as mere techs with Royal Charters to hide the nakedness of their ragged credentials.

Within each college there is also a wide spectrum. Many arts courses are so diffuse and inchoate that they are little more than a sort of low-level three or four gap-year experience. Others attending the same university do not experience the holiday camp life but work intimidatingly hard at applied science topics.

Civil Engineers and Medics seem almost over-trained. Others work devilishly hard and emerge with MBAs which equip them only to speak executive gobbledegook. So trying to say anything coherent about our universities is far from easy … with this one exception: they must wake up from their trance. They seem to think they are agents of the Scottish Executive. They ought to be centres of defiance to ministerial whim. They ought to be autonomous of the State.

On the pretext of lifting a modest number of students from penurious households they suppress a vast income potential from their clients – the students.

Universities could all prosper but some may wither and die. Who now remembers the University of Fraserburgh which could not pay its bills and closed its doors?

It is wrong to say we always have to copy from the US, but America has hundreds of glorious universities which thrive on their complete independence from politicians and the prodding from civil servants endured by Scotland’s universities. All the top universities are entirely independent.

There is only one truly independent university in Britain – the University of Buckingham. It offers some clues for Scottish campus leaders to follow. Buckingham asked its customers what they wanted.

Naturally they wanted the certification of intellectual rigour – the degree and a convivial atmosphere but, perhaps most surprisingly, they favoured a two-year degree course instead of the three or four years still imposed by every Scottish college. Two years of hard work with little vacation time is what they get.

Student fees ought to represent a far greater stream of income than the present suppressed flow. There could be discipline-specific pricing. Theology is a different market than, say, dentistry which is why dentists earn four or five times more than vicars. Pretending they are all the same is just silly.

I’m happy for students to follow degrees in Golf Club Management or in Sanskrit � providing they and their parents pay full fees rather than me. If you think I jest let me share with you that I have indeed just finished paying fees for my elder son to complete a degree in Professional Golf Management at Pennsylvania State University in the US. He should be on six figures well before he is 30.

Currently our universities are a vast system that taxes the poor to subsidise the prosperous � or perhaps better expressed as the children of the affluent or the future affluent.

Behind the ivy and other obscuring devices there is a mix of roles. Some dons are natural and gifted teachers. Others are so inept they should not be employed. Yet the weakest lecturer or tutor may be a brilliant thinker in the laboratory or in the library. Outsiders cannot know. Certainly ministers have no clue who is useful and who is useless. Yet every university submits to ridiculous bullying called “research assessment” by the Education Minister.

Scottish universities are far too timid about earning from all their possible sources. All graduates ought to be charmed into supporting their former colleges. None should go to their grave without a legacy to their alma mater.

The autonomy of universities has always been open to challenges. The ecclesiastical authorities used to police heresy and the king’s agents could hunt out Catholics or other deviants in the past. Adam Smith is very funny in his condemnations of college sloth. It would be false to suggest universities have always been islands of intellectual liberty.

Scotland equipped with 14 full university sites would attract hundreds of thousands of foreign students for that one great advantage of learning in English. My only suggestion for making the windy campuses more inviting might be for university terms to encompass the warm months of the year and perhaps close down in the depths of winter.

Instead of being lame quangos, universities should be great fountains of success of which income is only one measure. I look forward to the day when as private trusts with fee paying customers and grateful alumni they rank among our leading businesses, instead of at the bottom as a sclerotic sort of nationalised industry.

Vice-chancellors and principals must stop thinking they are civil servants.

John Blundell is the director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs