Leaders on the spot: Alex Salmond

Published in The Student, May 3 2011
With Julia Symmes-Cobb

The Student rating – 2/5: The man we met could not have been further from his popular portrayal in the media: feisty and agressive in public, Salmond seemed  to us somewhat listless. Given that he presents himself as a champion of students, he was surprisingly uninterested in giving any more than brush-off answers to questions on fees and graduate employment, always pivoting back to a grand vision of a dynamic, industrial Scotland that sounded impressive but was too vague and uncertain compared to the very real, pressing issues that students face, issues he refused to address meaningfully.

Alex Salmond holds forth in a backstage dressing room just as strikingly as in front of the Scottish Parliament. We interview him backstage before a free music concert that the Scottish National Party is hosting in Glasgow, just a few days before the votes are cast. The private room we’ve been given is large for a dressing room, but so packed to the rafters with SNP staffers, a videographer, giant stand-alone banners, stacks of fliers and various other pieces of SNP kit that for a moment after we’re led in there’s some confusion as to where there’s room for us to sit.

Throughout our interview, Salmond seems much more informed about challenges and innovations in business and industry than challenges and innovation in education and he wandered from the premise of each of our most important education questions, reshaping them to suit his comfort zone topics.

We first ask whether any further progress has been made in SNP education secretary Mike Russell’s campaign to make EU students contribute to their education costs if they attend a Scottish university. Salmond cites examples of similar initiatives in Ireland and Germany as a model for the SNP’s negotiations, and adds that the possible change hasn’t been added to his party’s costings because the changes aren’t yet definite.When asked about the situation English students may face come 2012, choosing between paying as much as £9,000 in fees down south and a cheaper education in Scotland, Salmond does his nationalist party proud by replying: “Our responsibility as a government is to finance Scottish students and it’s the job of other EU countries to finance their students as we would do elsewhere, as the government in Westminster should finance English students.”

Salmond blames the Coalition government in Westminster for the knock-on effect currently being felt in Scottish higher education and assures us that he “can’t think of any other developed country that has reversed the trend” of the state paying for higher education, adding wryly that if he had his way “the Tories would be charged with criminal offences, never mind charging other people [for university]”.
Salmond asserts that the key is to not be dependent on Westminster for higher education funding, “we have a situation where we’re being portrayed in the UK media as doing something unusual, as if by not having fees we’re doing something abnormal, but it’s Westminster that is behaving strangely, the rest of Europe is not agog with countries who are moving toward £9,000 in tuition fees…actually in Europe the trend is going substantially in our direction.”

On the question of the predicted higher education funding gap, Salmond cites the ‘expert group’ which he says have calculated a figure that should be taken as accurate. He then references an obscure semi-autonomous German province called Schleswig-Holstein which ostensibly has something to do with higher education funding gap, though The Student couldn’t begin to tell you what.

But Salmond assures us that his government is filling the gap with a “switch of resources from the rest of the public sector in Scotland into the university sector.”He does not offer further details but is at pains to reassure us that he’s got the backing of the electorate: “I think Scotland believes it’s the right policy” not to charge fees.

When asked about the results of a recent Scotsman poll that indicated that up to 65 per cent of Scots would be in favour of a graduate contribution of up to £4,000, Salmond dismissed the results, blaming the phrasing of the question and saying that he had seen the opposite results in a poll earlier in the month and adding that he thinks “The Scotsman were at it”. He added that it reminded him of a particular episode of Yes, Minister where the pollsters manipulate the questions to get their desired answer.When asked, Salmond asserts that graduate unemployment is less dire than unemployment in the general population, and then moves on quickly; saying that growth is what is needed to create jobs. The theme of growth allows Salmond to launch into what seems to be his pet topic – renewable marine energy. This wandering discourse lasts six minutes, during which Salmond says that Scotland controls a quarter of Europe’s “marine renewable potential” and that investment in wind and wave energies could create up to 60,000 jobs in the near future.This is the first, though not the last, departure Salmond will take from the topic at hand.

It happens again when he is asked whether he believes that the funding of certain university departments should be prioritised over others: “It’s less advantageous to start saying we’re going to pick this particular department over any other,” he begins. A few minutes later, The Student is incredibly well-informed concerning the Saltire Prize for the development of a machine to produce wave energy, but no wiser about how funding should be shared between university subjects.

The SNP leader says that the higher education policy of his party (“a declaration of faith” in Scottish universities) should have university principals rejoicing, but that some, notably Anton Muscatelli of the University of Glasgow, are perhaps misguided.Tavish Scott had told The Student that he thought that Mike Russell’s involvement in the situation at the University of Glasgow, where one of the campus buildings was occupied for seven weeks in protest at proposed redevelopment, was “badly advised”. When asked to respond to this critique of his fellow government minister, Salmond answers in typically robust fashion: “Well that’s the difference between Tavish Scott and Mike Russell, I think Mike Russell is right and Tavish Scott is wrong…I think the Liberal Democrat position and esteem among students is low enough without Tavish Scott making it worse.”When The Student asks about the SNP’s graduate apprenticeship scheme that was mentioned but not elaborated upon in the manifesto, Salmond gives us a blank look and responds by directing us back to the SNP manifesto. When pressed he answers “We’ve put in the manifesto what we’re going to do.”

Salmond cites his party’s championing of students, including what he says is a 25 per cent increase in spending on grants and bursaries. He says the SNP’s record with students is “incomparable” with both other parties and other areas of Britain.But Salmond is not finished with university principals just yet. He decries their pay packages and benefits and threatens “If you’re going to take public money then you’ve got to pay attention to public pay norms.”

He is sure that there is a “measure of efficiencies to be gained” from top public sector pay cuts and, really getting into his populist stride now, says that many university principals “seem to have escaped the recession entirely, and I don’t think that’s credible these days.”
Sighing and glancing up at the ceiling, he shows his frustration that the election has become a referendum on the Coalition and less an chance to debate devolved issues: “What’s at stake in this campaign is more fundamental than [who becomes first minister]…of course standing up to the government at Westminster is part of the job in my view…but that’s not the essence of this, we’re choosing a team and a government to run the country, it’s not just how you serve as a pressure group.

“We have a Scottish Parliament so that we can decide for ourselves on a range of issues at the present moment, over a range of other issues in the future, who governs the country. The days for us having to go chapping to Westminster to ask somebody not to be nasty to us anymore are over.“As it happens I could stand up to David Cameron or anyone else rather better than the Labour party in Scotland, but I don’t deceive myself that that’s my purpose in politics.”

And somehow, in true Salmond style, he manages to direct the conversation away from the question, though this is an inspired Salmond now – there’s a reverence in his voice – he’s talking about the free education in Scotland. He says Scotland was the first country to make primary education free and universally available. He calls it Scotland’s greatest invention.

He adds that since most of the developed world now has free primary and secondary education, “the comparative advantage must be in tertiary education.“Scotland’s future is in this access to education, it’s not just a gesture, ‘oh we don’t want to be nasty’…it’s an investment in the future of the country, so it’s a big responsibility incidentally for all these Scottish students…take the country forward.”“Alex”, his biographer David Torrance tells us the day after our interview “doesn’t really do policy detail.”  This probably explains why Salmond spent much of the interview reading from a pre-prepared list of policy talking points and why such an experienced politician struggled when we pressed him for specifics.  This is perhaps an insight into  the way Salmond sees himself:  he seems to aspire not so much to lead a party  or even a government, but a nation.

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