Universities and Independence

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Students at the University of Glasgow. Image (c) The University of Glasgow 2014.
Students at the University of Glasgow. Image (c) The University of Glasgow 2014.

by Jennifer Hilder (PhD Intern)

The future of Higher Education Research in an Independent Scotland was the subject of a special paper produced in April by the Scottish Government, following the white paper on Scotland’s Future last November (on the blog here).

In it, the Scottish Government argues that Scotland’s world leading universities will benefit from increased choices and opportunities after independence. But on-going debates about post-independence structures cast doubt on the future of Scottish universities.

The latest white paper on Scottish universities after independence predicts that they will flourish after independence first and foremost because of existing industry engagement and knowledge exchange. This connection between universities and businesses, offering opportunities to both, will be maximised through independence. International collaboration is another strength of the Scottish universities and this ‘internationalisation’ could be further promoted in an independent country.

An independent country would also have greater potential for innovation, particularly by being in control of its immigration policy allowing an influx of new knowledge and potential. All this would be underpinned by maintaining the existing funding framework that is shared with the UK.

Universities Scotland welcomed this commitment to the future of Scottish universities, which gives institutions the confidence to continue ‘business as usual’ in the run up to the referendum. As David Lott (Deputy Director of Universities Scotland) wrote in The Scotsman last Thursday, continued collaboration between universities, businesses and the government is ‘crucial’.

Yet a report by the UK House of Commons’ Business, Innovation and Skills Committee released on Friday (‘The Implications of Scottish Independence on Business; Higher Education and Research; and Postal Services’) raises serious questions over how the funding of Scottish universities would work. The current system of charging tuition fees to the rest of the UK would probably be deemed illegal under EU discrimination laws, creating a big shortfall for institutions.

The report also concludes that continuing to share a research council might not be ‘practical or desirable’. Greg Clark, the UK’s new minister for universities and science, argued last month that maintaining the current level of integration was more beneficial than a vote for independence.

There are academics on both sides, as an article in the Times Higher Education from June details, but funding is a question that is hard to ignore either way. David McCausland, Head of Economics at the University of Aberdeen, emphasises that:

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.

What will happen on September 18 remains to be seen, but could industry engagement plug the potential gap for Scottish universities? Or would other sources of funding have to be found from an independent Scottish government?

Post Author: Nicole Cassie

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