The impact of Scottish independence on the university sector has been a mere footnote during the referendum campaign. That’s not surprising when there are bigger issues at stake. But as the referendum day draws ever closer the polls have narrowed. No longer is the consequence of Scottish independence just an interesting dinner party topic. It is now a possibility. So what would independence mean for the higher education sector?
Any attention on universities during the campaign has been on fees. Scottish Nationalist politicians insist that the status quo will remain - Scottish and EU students outside of the rest of the UK have their £1820 fees paid for by the government in Holyrood; English students on the other hand are charged up to £9000.
But Yes campaigners are misguided. This discriminatory approach seems unlikely to continue in an independent Scotland. Student mobility is enshrined in EU law, as is the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of nationality. There is absolutely no precedent of an EU member state successfully applying for derogation from the provisions on student mobility.
So assuming an independent Scotland becomes a member of the EU, students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland will enjoy the same privileges as their Scottish peers, putting huge pressure on the Scottish higher education budget. Universities in Scotland receive around £150 million from rUK students, but that cost is likely to be much more in an independent Scotland with no tuition fees because Scottish universities would become extraordinarily attractive.
After all, why go to Durham or Newcastle and pay £9000 a year when you could go to St Andrews or Edinburgh and pay nothing? Scottish universities would be swamped with highly qualified applicants from rUK reducing available places for Scottish students.
The Scottish government would then have the choice of Scottish taxpayers subsiding English students or introducing tuition fees. It would surely be the height of irony if independence forced the Scottish government to copy, or come close to copying England’s higher education policy?
Research at risk
But fees aren’t the only consideration. Scottish institutions attract a disproportionate share of UK Research Council Funding, yet they will no longer be eligible. While Vice-Chancellors in Scotland are pleading for a retained UK research zone, their plea will go unheeded – would English taxpayers accept paying for research and (ultimately) jobs in a foreign country?
Scotland also benefits from Britain’s place in the world and from having UK universities in the top 10 globally. The reputations of all British universities profit from our place as a leader in education and research, and while Scotland’s universities are excellent they do not comprise the world’s elite.
The issues around higher education are similar in a way to the debate on the economy. As a Scot I have a pride and belief that Scotland could make a good fist of economic prosperity on its own. I too have no doubt that Scotland’s universities would continue to do well. But isn’t Scotland better off within the UK – maintaining the freedoms of devolution and the wider reputation and resources of Britain as a whole? To me it’s a no brainer. Scotland’s universities are better off in the Union.