At present I’m reading Birlinn’s new publication, The Seven Wonders of Scotland, by Gerry Hassan, with a review of this stimulating and thought-provoking book to appear on this site sometime soon, I promise. I mention this reading, as Hassan’s introduction to the book has been very much in mind over the last few days. So, today, Hassan’s introductory thoughts on ‘Scotland’s Stories: A Nation of Imaginations’ were accompanying me to the Holyrood Conference on Higher Education in Scotland, Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh.

Early billing had the event committed to addressing Higher Education in an independent Scotland: come the day, with the panel session finale, we did, in the end, get close to the big elephant. Here we were treated to five MSPs each giving five minutes on education in the context of independence and independence in the context of education. Contributing to the speed rating were, Hugh Henry (Labour), Liz Smith (Conservative), Liam McArthur (Liberal Democrats), George Adam (SNP), and Alison Johnstone (Green Party).

The education sector has been fairly scrupulous over recent months in upholding neutrality on questions of constitution. While it has been passing its exams with A+ on that subject, it has also been cramming on the key questions that need some kind of answer in advance of 2014 to allow the hundreds of thousands of employees, students, families…connected to Scottish Higher Education to feel in some way comforted that their referendum contribution is informed of likely impact, positive or negative, on education in Scotland – should they wish to configure their vote with such a frontdrop, of course. My guess is, amongst those many thousands of implicatees eligible to cast a vote, there are a good few undecideds to be wooed.

As the panel session at the end of today made clear, there are two key and twice-real questions uppermost in the collective mind of the sector apropos HE in an independent Scotland: 1) what kind of relationship, if any, will Scotland’s HEIs have with the established research funding councils, funders from whom we have received a fine return, not from formula funding, but from successful competitive bidding with research excellence as leverage, and 2) what will happen to the existing fees regime if after 2014 currently-classified RUK students become eligible to compete with Scottish-domiciled students for places funded by the SFC?

But back to Hassan. In ‘Scotland’s Stories: A Nation of Imaginations’ he describes with some force a nation of imaginative determinations:

Scotland has had many stories about itself – as an imagined space, a different space from the rest of the UK, as an historical nation, and as a mythical, magical place. There is the Scotland of invention, ingenuity and creativity; the Scotland of the mind, the Enlightenment, thinking, inquisitiveness and curiosity; and the Scotland of a political community.

Today making it large in the education world  wordcloud were: innovation, curiosity, inquiry, creativity, research, provisionality of knowledge, discovery. Hassan would have recognised the Scottish imaginary embedded in that vocabulary. With more than what might be our fair share of HEIs in the top 200 globally we can say, and we did today, that something of our intellectual tradition of creativity, curiosity and inquiry has stood us in good stead. In short, our intellectual inquisitiveness is something about which we are proud, in our stories and in our lives and professions no less. Something of the Independence campaign is indebted, quite rightly, to that particular story, and that’s a transaction of value.

What stood out at the conference come the entry of the elephant, however, was the quickness with which intellectual curiosity and self-respecting inquisitiveness on the part of a public sector was waived as irksome by those entrusted to present specific (even if still story-bound) answers to key questions. There are presently no answers in the public domain to the key questions exemplified here, and those entrusted are still willing, it appears, to present in the public domain, not with inquisitiveness towards a possible solution, but with silence on the actuality of the story to be lived.

One crux of today, then, is echoed in Hassan’s perspicacious introduction and elsewhere in what is, in places, a dark book. When independencers bring stories to the public built around the words delegates heard today, the bar is set high. And when the story of actuality is forlorn in reply to open and collegial curiosity, one wonders whether the inspiring stories of a better Scotland are to be mumbled by technical narrators. And if the story makers, or story users maybe, cannot see past technical demands of formative politics, then we should rest our stories for fear of bequeathing to the future the disappointment of suboptimisation.

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