For several reasons, the Scottish independence debate is an especially interesting thing from the perspective of the education sector and, likewise, the education sector is, I reckon, a particularly interesting thing from the perspective of the Nationalist Government in Scotland. Before proceeding with bloggy offerings on this gambit I want to register a phenomenon expressed well by Natalie McGarry in today’s The Scotsman (‘Constitution a new nation can be proud of’, The Scotsman, Thursday 27 June 2013). From one outlook from the education sector it is not difficult to agree with McGarry when, firstly, she offers comments on what she calls a vacuum of input from civic Scotland in terms of constructive scrutiny of the powers of the Scottish Parliament and, secondly, when she offers putative explanations as to why: could it be ‘that devolution is still young; that the timing or reality of an independence referendum took people by surprise,’ or better still, ‘that many people and organisations are reluctant to pre-empt the result of the referendum or be seen to or because they cannot see an angle for blatant self-interest’.

The Scottish Higher Education sector has been if not reluctant then careful in avoiding aggregation of opinion on the issue of independence to the level of sectoral positioning. This is, of course, prudent; the sage tactic being to describe foreseen technical issues and to cost them. This approach is evidenced by impressive work done by Universities Scotland in exploring policy issues of import at the same time as registering that ‘it is for the people of Scotland to decide Scotland’s constitutional future’. (See the November 2012 briefing publication, Universities in a dynamic constitutional environment: policy issues for consideration.) Scottish HE no doubt contributes in part, then, to McGarrie’s expressed frustration by way of the sector self-identifying with a slightly abstracted organisational mass somehow above and beyond the level of the world of plebiscitary human beings. This self-identification occurs even where self-interest on the part of Education might suggest it wise to deposit some sculpted political matter in McGarry’s vacuum.

Policy issues for consideration

That said, I for one see no fault in the sector’s unpositioned positioning in the complexities of the debate; an important contribution is made all the same with activity like the US briefing paper. By contrast, and now thinking about the education sector in the context of Nationalist Government, some see fault with the way in which the sector is perceived and positioned by that style of political leadership. Next door to McGarry in The Scotsman is Tavish Scott throwing stones from his French balcony at the SNP’s agenda on education as an example of their naked expedience in advance of 2014 (‘No holiday for the SNP propaganda machine‘, The Scotsman, Thursday 27 June 2013).

Scott makes clear his disdain for the current and high profile ‘Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill’ with his substitute sarcastic appellation – ‘Control of universities bill’. For Scott the bill is symptomatic of a Government unashamed about central control of properly cross-party agendas for Nationalist ends. His gloomy and styled prediction is that the bill ‘gives unprecedented powers to Scottish ministers to interfere in the operational and strategic decisions of universities’. Scott’s point of principle (forged from his stockpile of blackandwhiteum) is that our universities are independent academic institutions: his coup de grâce is that the bill when forced through will end that independence, so there.

Leaving to one side the not-so-easy identification of universities as historically independent institutions (for never have they been miraculously distinct from church or state or church-cum-state interests or from less distinct but similarly real in-this-way-for-the-greater-good ideology of various complexions, even those of the Modern University, Scott seems to ignore a pragmatic potentiality within the Scottish sector that might now be, in a way, unlocked by Nationalist imperatives and for constructive ends. To consider this aspect is to look out upon the education sector from the perspective of Nationalist Government. To entertain this aspect is to begin to regard Scott’s position as deeply conservative. This is not a daft regard, for Scott’s position holds unavoidably that the Post-16 bill is in some sense an ethical deviation from paragons of government-of-education already well-established in the course of history, no doubt wedded in the fantasy to pen and wash ideas of liberal democracy.

Not wishing to do anything in the name of my professional sector that might precipitate the high-risk aggregation of individual thinking in public towards matter of political colour, no no no, I might still hazard that the bill is in fact a credible example of political organising that can be deemed in some ways progressively liberal (sic) and demonstrative of the collegial advantages no less that a Nationalist perspective on education might bring. By this I mean, respectively, firstly, that a part of the bill is predicated on the opposite of conservative comfort with the status quo (in respect of widening access, for example, [addressing the fact that the independence or potentially non-responsible autonomy of the institution can hinder its development in step with public positions on equality and justice {for it to be real, after all, liberalism must be intolerant of complacent intolerance}]) and, secondly, I mean that part of the bill is grounded in the simple but powerful idea that the Scottish sector, if not united exactly, can be organised around common goals rather than left as a whole slackly disorganised  around a fading principle of internecine competitiveness (within which there exists a sinister but understandable silence on the issue of ‘inequality as a badge of independent academic excellence’ [as well as an oft-repeated belief that ‘if only we were left to our own devices all would emerge  from political fog shortly thereafter in fully-formed glory’]).

The Scotsman today offers a third component to this bloggy inquiry.  In a highly stimulating article, Director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, Robin McAlpine writes against the broken idea of ‘perfect competition’ and in doing so indirectly corroborates something of the intent of the Post-16 bill and of the constructive SNP take on HE in Scotland (‘Work for the Common Weal‘, The Scotsman, Thursday 27 June 2013). With transferability to the HE sector and to debates about ‘interference and autonomy’, McAlpine identifies a destructive malaise at the heart of a too-late capitalist idea of perfect competition:

‘This idea that perpetual conflict on a battlefield free of obstructions is the ultimate means of filtering out anything that isn’t excellent underpins the British approach to everything. In the economy, we call this the free market. In education, we call it meritocracy. In the playground, we used to call it “winner takes all”.’

The ‘interference’ of the Post-16 bill is through McAlpine’s useful lens, ballast against the inexorable vertical flight to a ‘meritocracy’ that could shape education as a common weal in favour of a select few. As he hammers home the point that ‘the conflict model has singularly failed’, McAlpine opens out onto the possibility that Scotland, maybe as much as a result of its conducive size and scale as its political inheritance, might be a viable geosociopolitical ecology for a national effort to see ‘politics catch up with its people’ and (as the Post-16 bill would have it, legitimately) to ‘move forward in a coordinated way’.

Sending back some stones to Scott is all very well, but it more than likely does not enough to dissipate some individuals’ one-dimensional suspicion of any governmental shaping of education agendas. But I make the bloggy points – with McAlpine’s ethic at work – to point to that possible conduciveness, something which I think is too often ignored in debates on the constitutional question. This is all from the perspective of education, granted, but with wider application for I trust in McAlpine’s optimism on this score. Nationalism as an actual political approach to progressive organisation might have purchase here (for it must be situated and not merely fantasised or demonised), it might be a collective something, following McAlpine’s lead again, which exists actively and credibly in our given geographical and organisational contexts. This is to say that Nationalism as a practical means to the end of either civic independence or just civic improvement, might be a form of political organisation apposite for a Scottish context. Thankfully, against parochialism, this potentiality is potentially separate from historical antagonism towards competing seats of power and from the attendant attitude of entitlement to sovereignty that merely fosters competitive rancour.