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Sheila Riddell: The Future of Scottish Universities in the Context of the Referendum on Independence

The Scottish Government’s  White Paper on Scotland’s Future, published on 26th November 2013, includes a chapter on education, skills and employment, and has a particular focus on the university sector.   The paper notes that ‘the university sector is one of the main drivers of the Scottish economy’, contributing to the economic, social and cultural welfare of the nation.  Free access to under-graduate higher education for Scottish-domiciled students is identified as one of the Scottish Government’s flagship policies, and there is a clear commitment that, if the SNP remains in power, this policy will continue in the event of a vote for independence.  It is argued that ‘free education for all those able to benefit is a core part of Scotland’s educational tradition and the values that underpin our education system’. However, as in the rest of the UK, social inequality in HE access, reflecting wider social divisions, is a clear feature of the Scottish system and this is not discussed in the White Paper.  There is no evidence that the policy of free under-graduate tuition has led to an increase in university participation by students from poorer backgrounds.

Currently, undergraduate students from the rest of the UK (rUK) are charged fees of up to £9,000 per annum if they study in Scotland.  The White Paper states the Scottish Government’s belief that, post-independence, it would be able to continue to charge students from other parts of the UK.  Students from the rest of the EU, by way of contrast, would continue to study free of charge in Scotland, in line with the Bologna principle of promoting cross-border student mobility.  The White Paper argues that, if rUK students were treated in the same way as students from other parts of the EU, there would be a danger that Scottish students would be squeezed out, since there would be a ‘huge incentive’ for rUK students to study in Scotland.  In addition, there would be a loss of revenue to Scottish universities, which are already concerned about the emergence of a funding gap between Scottish and English institutions. This is an area where there are ongoing debates, with experts in European law believing that the EU would be unlikely to allow an independent Scotland to charge fees to rUK students, when home students are studying for free.

The different fees regimes across the UK are already having an impact on cross-border student flows.  Even before the rise in tuition fees in the rest of the UK in 2012, the majority of young Scottish students chose to stay in Scotland for their university education.  However, the numbers of those crossing borders has declined even further. UCAS data show that in 2013, almost 90% of Scottish students applied only to Scottish institutions, compared with 87% in 2010.  Northern Irish students are also increasingly staying at home to study. A higher proportion of English-domiciled students are applying to study outside their home country (20% of all applicants). The real contrast is between the rest of the UK and Wales, where only 20% of Welsh-domiciled students apply only to their home institutions, the other 80% applying to at least one institution in the rest of the UK.  This is because the Welsh Government subsidises their fees at universities not in Wales. By way of contrast, if a Scottish student chooses to study in England, they incur the full fee.  Although it is too early to understand the full impact of different fees regimes across the UK, the fact that a declining proportion of Scottish students chooses to study outwith Scotland raises interesting questions about the benefits of doing so.  It is also interesting to note that those who leave Scotland are a socially selected group, half of whom have attended private schools.

The White Paper also addresses the funding of research in Scottish universities post-independence.  Endorsing the position of Universities UK, the Scottish Government states that it would wish to remain part of a UK common research area, ensuring no barriers to collaborative research, access to facilities and peer review for researchers throughout the UK.  This, it is suggested, is in the interests of both Scotland and the rest of the UK. The Government proposes that it would contribute to the funding of the UK Research Councils, based on population share.  This scenario is contested within a recent paper on science and research published by the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). This paper notes that Scotland currently does rather well with regard to funding from the UK research councils.  In 2012-13, for example, Scotland gained 10.7% of UK research council funding, against 8.4% of population.  The BIS paper suggests that there would be no guarantee that Scotland would continue to be part of a UK funding area post-independence, because national governments fund national research programmes.  Reflecting different economic and social priorities, the Scottish Government would almost certainly wish to develop a distinctive research agenda, making it very difficult to agree a joint research programme and funding share. The BIS paper also suggests that significant difficulties would emerge with regard to the funding of research by UK charities post-independence.  Scottish universities currently get about 15% of their total research income from charities, most of which are UK based.  The UK Government believes that, post-independence, most UK charities would wish to concentrate funding within their own territory, and Scotland would have to look to Scottish charitable sources, leading to fragmentation and duplication.

It is of course the case that an independent Scotland would be able to look to international sources of research funding, but these sources typically make up a small proportion of overall funding.  At the moment, Scottish HEIs secure 7% of their total research income from the EU, compared with 30% of total funding from Funding Council Research Grant devolved to the SFC and 26% from the Research Councils in the form of research grant funding. Apart from the various schemes associated with the EU, there are few examples of cross- border research funding consortia.  One example is the Nordic Research Council, which has an annual budget of £13 million. This compares with the seven UK Research Councils, which invest approximately £3 billion in research each year.

With regard to the future of universities, it is evident that there are marked contrasts between the Scottish and UK Governments with regard to the future scenarios which they envisage.  Clearly, it is impossible for anyone to know how this would work out in practice, since much would depend on post-referendum negotiations between the two governments and with the EU.  Many people are likely to base their voting decision in the referendum on issues other than higher education, such as the economy. However, it is interesting to note that many of the issues arising in the context of higher education reflect wider policy concerns, and centre on the relationship between Scotland, the UK, Europe and other nations.

Sheila Riddell is Professor of Inclusion and Diversity and Director of the Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity at the University of Edinburgh

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