Scotland Decides ’14: what would independence mean for Scottish universities?

Would Scottish R&D take a post-indy hit? US Army RDCOM, CC BY-SA

Scotland is home to some of Europe’s oldest universities, and the sector plays a key role in the economy there. But what impact would independence have on it? This week academics have been doing battle over the future of higher education research funding in an independent country. A recent Scottish government report claimed that the current joint funding arrangements between Scotland and the rest of the UK would be maintained after independence. But the UK government has ruled this out.

Rival camps of academics on unionist and nationalist sides have been writing to Scottish newspapers over the issue. We asked two of our panellists for their views.


John McKendrick, Senior Lecturer, Glasgow Caledonian University

All is not well with higher education in the UK. For example the line that the UK government has taken on immigration is regressive in universities. If you are making it more difficult for students to come to study in the UK, that creates a problem because the fees paid by international students are a major source of university income.

Increasing the international student population is a key component of universities’ strategies to generate more income. You might argue that if an independent Scotland was more welcoming and open to those students, that might generate income that is not there at present. But that does assume that those students would come here rather than to English universities.

There’s a lot of talent in Scottish universities. Our top universities rank highly in the international league tables. I can’t see that changing dramatically in an independent Scotland. Our research-intensive institutions will continue to prosper whatever lies ahead.

But if the cake did become slightly smaller after independence, what would that mean for the sector as a whole? Would everyone get an equally smaller share? Would money flow to the top universities to protect their standing in the international arena? That has to be a real possibility. I don’t think Scotland would want to weaken what are significant drivers to the economy and beacons for its standing in the global arena.

Many supporters of independence see it as an opportunity to address enduring inequalities. But you might end up with a situation where higher education pulled in the opposite direction – drawing money from less research-intensive institutions. There’s no evidence to suggest that might be the case, but we should be alert to it as a possibility.

So what’s the vision for Scottish universities in an independent Scotland? To what extent will be prepared to adequately fund those institutions that have proven to be so successful at facilitating widening participation?

Will the principle of free higher education at the point of delivery be a cornerstone of our educational system? Are we sure that it is in the national interest to sustain a system that generates such high levels of personal debt for young people at the start of their working lives? Not much attention is being paid to these issues at the moment.

Instead I see no difference between the higher education debate and the general independence debate. The nationalists pick out a fault in the current scenario as a way of pointing to an opportunity for an independent Scotland to do differently. The unionists say, “We have a good deal just now, we get more than our fair share, it will all be jeopardised.”

David McCausland, Head of Economics, University of Aberdeen

The Scottish government paper suggests that there will be greater fiscal levers available to support research in higher education. But if an independent Scotland were to enter a currency union with the rest of the UK, as is presently favoured, then monetary policy would continue to be determined in London. This would mean that the burden of economic policy in Scotland would fall on fiscal policy. Those fiscal levers will be subject to many competing demands.

The report is right to say that the main source of sustainable economic growth is technological progress. And research by universities is key to driving this process forward.

The report makes much of academics determining which research gets funded and continuing research assessment through the REF (Research Excellence Framework) process, with the government setting research priorities set by research councils. While it is understandable that governments wish to have this input given the taxpayer contribution to higher education, it could perhaps be argued that the balance has shifted too far towards these thematic priorities and away from genuine blue-skies research.

The measurement mechanism inherent in the REF process tends to skew research towards the measurable and to meeting particular targets. As well as being a time-consuming process that diverts activity away from research and teaching, it also slants activity in universities towards research. This is possibly to the detriment of teaching, which is also a core part of universities’ role in driving economic growth.

The government report is right in its assessment of the damaging effect of the UK’s immigration policy –- not only in terms of signalling that overseas students are not welcome, but also in denying to universities valuable sources of revenue during times when other funding sources are becoming tighter.

The report says much about universities tapping into other sources of funding for research after independence. But EU schemes like Horizon 2020 have much smaller budgets available than previous schemes like Framework 7. This is against the backdrop of Scottish Funding Council funding overall roughly flatlining (despite increases in some areas like knowledge exchange).

Overall, whether Scottish universities can continue to punch above their weight after independence very much depends on whether access can be maintained to current research funding. If universities have a funding environment that enables the very best researchers to be attracted to Scotland, there is no reason why current successes cannot be maintained.

The downside risk would be if the post-independence financial position necessitated a greater degree of austerity in public spending. If this fed through into declining resource for university research, making the environment less attractive to world class researchers, then future prospects for economic growth may be put in jeopardy.

The rest of the Scotland Decides ’14 panel debates are here

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