Westminster gets it wrong on Scottish independence and education once again

Westminster’s latest report clouds over a chance for thoughtful debate. Steve Parsons/PA Wire

On August 5, the house of commons committee for business, innovation, and skills (BIS) published a report on the impacts of Scottish independence on higher education, business, and the postal service. But the committee’s somewhat unoriginal recommendations don’t really extend beyond a large-letter “No” addressed to the Scottish government.

For anyone imagining the BIS report is an impartial investigation, it is worth pointing out that the committee consists entirely of members of the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. These parties are all firmly committed to the case against Scottish independence. So it comes as no surprise that their conclusions constitute fairly standard rejections of the agenda set out in the Scottish government’s white paper on independence.

In relation to higher education, the committee decided to focus on two issues only: the question of tuition fees for students from the rest of the UK, and the possibility of the maintenance of a single research area in the British Isles. We can assume these particular choices were made because, in the eyes of the politicians involved, they pose the greatest difficulty for those advocating independence. Other important issues – such as academic and student migration, and further aspects of research strategy – were ignored.

What is more, the committee’s treatment of the two chosen issues is fairly superficial. The report contains minimal analysis, beyond the listing of some submissions made to the committee. It concludes that, if Scotland were both independent and a member of the European Union, it is doubtful it could continue to charge tuition fees to students from the rest of the UK.

Others have concluded similarly, as in recent research from the University of Edinburgh. But legal advice provided to Universities Scotland may offer a basis in EU law for the Scottish government to continue charging fees to students from the rest of the UK, post-independence.

No single research area

At present, the UK is home to a single research area. This means that England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland contribute public funds to one pot. Grants are then awarded by Research Councils UK on a competitive basis. The report states that in the event of Scottish independence, a single research area would not be “practical” or “desirable”. Even if everyone agreed to a common research area, the report suggests that each jurisdiction would have to fund work by its own researchers, with no cross-border subsidies.

Some academics have already expressed concerns about the implications of independence for research funding. But I would suspect that in the event of Scottish independence, some mutually acceptable arrangement can be reached that maintains much of the UK research community, while also allowing Scotland to develop its own national research strategy.

Of course, the effect of a vote for independence may not be as significant for universities as in other areas, because education is already a fully devolved matter under the Scotland Act 1998. There is a Scottish cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning (currently Michael Russell), and a Scottish Funding Council, which distributes funding to universities and colleges and oversees national strategy.

Commonalities can remain

Even now there is no such thing as a UK higher education “system”. Wales and Northern Ireland also have their own frameworks, which differ from that of England. Perhaps the question that the committee should have assessed is whether, if Scotland votes for independence, some UK-wide structures could or should be maintained.

While there is significant divergence now between Scotland and the rest of the UK in higher education, there are also common traditions and links between universities across these islands. This is expressed most visibly in the existence of a UK-wide academic and student community, in shared quality assurance principles, and in the assessment of research quality.

But there are very significant differences in funding. And it may be that, in future, there will also be differences in the principles of governance, arising from the review of Scottish higher education governance that I chaired in 2011-12.

The parliamentary committee clearly decided to make a partisan contribution to the independence debate. It has missed an opportunity to make a thoughtful assessment of how a common concept of higher education could continue to be nurtured in a new constitutional settlement, whether that involved independence or greater devolution.