Despite a chest infection (the doctor said it was much worse than man flu but I just keep on keeping on manfully) I had a thoroughly enjoyable time at Glasgow University last night. I was the guest speaker at the annual Chancellor’s dinner; no, not George Osborne, he was busy helping Ireland, where his family has considerable interests and UK banks have considerable exposure.
The Chancellor in question was University Chancellor Sir Kenneth Calman, former Chief Medical Officer and the name behind the Calman Commission into the next steps for Scottish devolution.
He was a charming and engaging host who made a big fuss of my brother Donald, who among other things is the University’s piper, and an even bigger fuss of my Mum, who came along not least because Glasgow was where my Dad trained as a vet. As a result he met my Mum on a visit to the farm where she grew up, so I was able to kick off with a spectacular piece of crawling in saying I owed my entire life to Glasgow University.
We also shifted a lot of my books, with the proceeds going to the University’s world-beating leukaemia research centre.
It was interesting to listen to the principal and vice-chancellor, Professor Anton Muscatelli, and in particular his upbeat focus on the university’s centrality to Scotland’s economic, scientific and cultural life.
In my own remarks, I had made the point that there is barely a high profile organisation or individual in the country who feel they get a fair or accurate profile for what they do. That is because we live in a culture of media negativity.
But Prof Muscatelli clearly comes from the same school as I do … if you have a story to tell, tell it on your terms. And he made a compelling case for the good work the university does for the country, not just its students, and a powerful call for the continuing support of politicians, policymakers, business and the community at large.
If there was an elephant in the room, it was politics, and the decisions confronting Scotland’s politicians about future funding of the university sector, and the same issues of tuition fees and graduate tax that are so toxic in England, with another set of protests today.
All the main parties in Scotland know that whilst free education for all and forever is great in theory, it is not sustainable in practice. They also know that whilst it is terrific to have so many of England’s brightest and best applying to Scotland’s universities, it is a bit of a no-brainer not to be making a bit more money from them.
But what was clear from last week’s Scottish Budget is that the SNP may know the tough decisions are coming but they are not too keen on spelling them out this side of May’s elections. Labour also know the decisions will have to be made, but face a tactical battle to avoid being put on the wrong side of a big argument by a canny opportunist operator like Alex Salmond. And the universities are keen for the politicians not to pin themselves too firmly to a fixed position. Oh democracy works in funny ways sometimes.
The gloss does seem to be coming off Salmond though and with the independence argument well and truly parked in a bay marked ‘no chance’ sinced the economic crisis, the so-called bread and butter issues will dominate the campaign. I am not a betting man but I did suggest to those who are that it might be worth taking a punt on the distinct possibility of a Tory-Lib coalition in Westminster alongside a Labour-Lib coalition in Scotland after May 5.
As people kept saying last night, we really do live in interesting times.