The appointment of a failed education secretary makes a mockery of Glasgow University

Mike Russell MSP (2)
Rhys Harper

Politicians and academia, like salt and most delicacies, rarely make for an enjoyable combination. More so, the splicing of failed politicians and academia seems almost preemptively doomed to produce awkward lecture theatre mediocrity. Enter Mike Russell MSP, former education secretary, newly appointed Glasgow University lecturer and the worst thing to have happened to Scottish schooling since the 11-plus.

In his role as a professor in Scottish culture and governance, Mike Russell holds the somewhat ironic responsibility of educating students on the thrill-a-minute rollercoaster of Holyrood bureaucracy, unperturbed, it would seem, by his public and indeed destructive inability to, eh, actually navigate Scottish governance himself.

At least, death by red tape and paper hurdle jumping is the generous explanation for Russell’s failings: another is that he knew exactly who and what was being thrown under the bus when Holyrood slashed school spending by 5% (higher and harsher than in any other part of the UK) between 2011 and 2013 in real terms. Opting instead to redirect money to the middle class subsidies of universal free tuition, free prescriptions (even if the place you call home is a palace constructed entirely of gold and marble) and other spending commitments deemed more important by the then education secretary than, you know, trashy poor kids in council houses whose parents probably won’t turn up to vote anyway.

Overall the proportion of primary and secondary pupils doing “well” or “very well” at reading over the past two years has plummeted, along with basic writing skills, but particularly hard hit have been the most deprived of Scottish pupils. Just two fifths (41%) of S2 kids in poorer areas have been deemed to be performing “well” or “very well’” in writing, a damning drop of 11%. Our attainment gap in Scotland is continuously widening in a biblical fashion, unrivalled since Moses, with fewer pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds going into higher education here than down south. At the same time student numbers at colleges fell by almost 50,000 (colleges, of course, tend to benefit those from less privileged background) while 1,000 teaching positions were cut. Mike Russell’s legacy after five years at the top table of power with sole responsibility over Scottish education could only have been worse had he taken his centralisation preference that one step further and enacted Miss Trunchbull’s ‘chokey’ in every region of the country, from Dundee to Dumfries, and replaced Higher business management with defence against the dark arts for a laugh.

Regardless of your politics, your voting preferences or your star sign, education is everything. It is fundamental. Governments come and go but education will remain a necessity forever; without a decent education poor kids would have virtually no rope ladder to tug on, and any flicker of a meritocratic job market would evaporate.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon was right to sack Mike Russell upon taking over from her more lenient predecessor last year, and the leaders of every other Scottish political party have been right to cast light on the trail of destruction this man has left behind. Logically, a political failure of such grandiose proportions, deemed a liability by even those within his own party, would be expected to flee to the backbenches of the Scottish Parliament, not take up a cushy teaching post at one of the country’s top universities. And yet here we are, Glasgow University, welcoming a failed politician disguised as a scholar.

It’s a bizarre situation worth pondering. Why would a Russell Group university (which, by definition, entails a requirement for top working research professors) hire an ill-qualified guy with a resume more contentious than The Satanic Verses? Perhaps they are hoping to stay on the Scottish government’s good side as Holyrood forces through controversial legislation designed to interfere with the governing bodies of higher education institutions. Legislation considered by some critics, including Liz Smith MSP, confirm her belief that the Scottish government is “hell bent on meddling in governance and exerting more and more control over the sector”. But then it’s not as if Professor Russell is likely to have any particular sway or clout with Nicola Sturgeon, who had the guy out on his ear quicker than a G1 bouncer.

No, the reasoning for Mike Russell’s appointment remains a mystery. Even in the unlikely event that there were no other candidates dripping in degrees available to fill the position, an acting MSP (from the governing party, no less) in a university teaching vacancy is a mildly discomforting thought. Can a politician speak openly about Scottish governance and culture in lecture theatres without criticising his own party, in a way sure to be picked up and tweeted by attendees for the media to see? Fear of publicly speaking out on relevant topics – or rather, fear of its consequences – should have no place in academia, but it could well transpire to be a problem for this new recruit. Can an SNP former cabinet member speak objectively on political culture? Can he discuss the merits of arguments critiquing nationalism? It’s a precarious position: quite the tightrope walk.

Amusingly, just a few short months ago SNP MP Pete Wishart spoke out against ‘double jobbing’ MPs in the House of Commons, commenting: “I believe that being a member of parliament is a full-time job. In fact, we have got two jobs: we have our responsibilities in this House, and then we have our obligations to our constituents”. Evidently, his colleague in the Scottish Parliament does not share that view.

Only time and end-of-semester review sheets will tell how Mike Russell performs as a part-time professor. It’s certainly too late for Muscatelli to back out now. All we can do in the meantime is hope that, for the sake of Glasgow University’s students of Scottish culture and governance, he makes at least a marginally better educator than he did an education secretary, though we may take a perverse sort of comfort in the knowledge that it would be difficult for him to do much worse.

This article was updated and the sentence: “Enter Mike Russell MSP, former education secretary, newly appointed Glasgow University lecturer and the worst thing to have happened to Scottish schooling since dyslexia” was replaced. (23:08 05/06/2015)


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