Scottish Independence and Higher Ed

Would Scotland's universities be helped or hurt if it leaves the United Kingdom?

February 6, 2014

There is less than nine months to go until Scottish voters decide whether to break the 306-year-old union with England and leave the United Kingdom to form an independent country.

And the vote, which polls once predicted would be an easy win for the pro-union campaign, now seems a much tighter race. A recent poll found that 46 percent of people planned to vote for independence, compared with 54 percent who were against separation.

With the nationalists sensing the wind in their sails, vice chancellors, academics and journalists gathered in Edinburgh recently to hear the Scottish education secretary and the secretary of state for Scotland clash over whether independence would be good news for the country's universities. The debate generated headlines on the issue of immigration, but the two sides are still stuck in a stalemate over whether an independent Scotland would be able to keep its current position on tuition and share research councils (which distribute some research funds) with Britain.

In a sign of the campaign¹s increasing intensity, the speeches, by the Scottish Nationalist Party's Michael Russell and Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael, were peppered with accusations of xenophobia, grandstanding and duplicity.

Russell accused the British government of running an immigration policy driven by a "nasty xenophobia that revolts me and revolts others." This message was damaging the reputation of Britain as a study destination, he said, with the result that "Scotland loses out" on international students and scholars.

He pledged to reintroduce post-study work visas, ­ which gave overseas students the automatic right to work for two years after graduation before  they were scrapped in 2012 ­ in an independent Scotland.

Responding, Carmichael alleged that Russell was manufacturing a "synthetic spat" about immigration to "distract attention" from unresolved questions on tuition and a common UK research area in an independent Scotland.

Scottish students currently pay no tuition fees to go to university in Scotland. Owing to European Union laws, other EU students are subject to the same policy, except for those from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, who have to pay up to £9,000 ($14,600) a year. The Scottish Nationalist Party hopes to continue this arrangement in the event of independence.

Legally, the current position is permitted because EU member states are allowed to discriminate in this way within their borders. But, if an independent Scotland became a separate EU member state, denying  free tuition to students from the rest of Britain ­ a fellow member state ­ would become illegal, Carmichael claimed.

Yet Mr Russell told his audience that an independent Scotland would have an "absolutely unique" case to make in Brussels to be allowed to continue this policy.

If students in the rest of the UK were allowed to study north of the border for free, he predicted, their numbers at Scottish universities would grow from the current figure of 14,000 to 93,000, taking around four in every five places and squeezing out Scots.

Because such students are much less likely to stay in Scotland after graduation than Scots, this would cause huge problems for employers north of the border, he argued.

The second post-independence conundrum is whether Scotland and the remainder of Britain would continue to share their research councils, facilities and peer review networks.

As made clear in a presentation by Anton Muscatelli, vice chancellor of the University of Glasgow, Scottish universities do well in the present system. In 2011-12, they won 15.2 per cent of research council grant funding despite Scotland¹s having about 8 per cent of the UK population, in effect securing a net influx of research funding to Scotland.

Russell claimed that it was clearly in the interests of both countries to keep such a common research area going, "given Scotland¹s leadership in various areas."

But Carmichael said Russell was making "promises he cannot be certain of delivering" because a common research area would have to be negotiated by the two states after a vote for independence.

As a result of the Scottish Nationalist Party's position on various policies, he claimed an independent Scotland would go into these negotiations with the following unconvincing opening gambit: "We¹d like to share the UK pound with you, and we¹d still like to have access to the Bank of England, but as for your young people, they will need to pay fees while young people from France, Spain and Italy can get into our universities for free ­ oh, and can we have a common research area, too?"

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