Independence and higher education


As the seemingly interminable debate over Scottish independence reaches fever pitch – the referendum in September itself still a disappointingly distant prospect – the three spectres of oil, the pound and the EU have come to almost totally dominate the public discourse.

Such an oversimplification of a complex question of sovereignty, identity and economics is perhaps to be expected, but has seen other key issues escape proper scrutiny. One such matter of particular interest to students at St Andrews and across Scotland is how independence would directly affect them and their institutions.

What are the risks? What is there to gain? Should we care at all? Here, we weigh up the cases both for and against.

The case for

The Scottish government’s White Paper for independence, released last November, outlined its vision for the higher education system of an independent Scotland. Slogging through the tub-thumping rhetoric of brighter futures and fairer societies, a general narrative can be identified: yes, argue the SNP, Scotland enjoys freedom over the devolved matter of education policy in theory, but wider actions by the UK government have significantly impacted on its capacity to act with full autonomy in practice.

A vote for independence, they promise, would free Scottish universities from draconian UK immigration restrictions on staff and students, and allow funding to be more fairly allocated.

Conservative-led immigration policy passed in Westminster has directly affected Scottish universities and their students. Changes to visas have made it more difficult for those living outside the EU to come to Scotland to study, and effectively impossible to stay after graduation unless they already have the guarantee of a skilled job.

Overseas students, who can pay upwards of £25,000 a year for cer- tain degrees, represent a significant proportion of the income of Scottish universities, but nationalists argue that access to this significant revenue stream is being throttled. Last year alone the number of international students entering Scottish universities fell by four per cent, and the number of students from India fell by over 25 per cent.

Alasdair Sim, of Universities Scotland, has condemned the current situation of detrimental “mixed messages” currently being broadcasted to international students. One half of students from abroad expect UKBA agents to appear at graduation cer- emonies, shooing them towards the nearest airport before the mortar boards have hit the ground.

The Scottish government has pledged to loosen current rules in the event of separation, making it significantly easier for foreign students wanting to continue living in Scotland after graduation (such individuals do apparently exist) and emphasising the openness of Scottish universities to overseas students.

In doing so, Scottish universities would be allowed to employ more foreign staff members, increasing the diversity of opinion and experience on campus and improving the general standard of teaching. Excellent news, then, for St Andreans from abroad, and those of us whose education is effectively subsidised by their fees.

The financial realities of devolu- tion are also holding back Scottish universities, argue nationalists. Although Holyrood possesses decision-making abilities over education policy, it is necessarily limited in the funds it can allocate by the size of the annual block grant voted on and passed down by Westminster.

Nationalists remain bullish about the prospects for the financial viability of the higher education system in an independent Scotland. The White Paper cites legal advice claiming the unique geographic circumstances and importance to the wider econo- my of the education sector mean a viable case can be made to continue to charge RUK students full tuition fees, despite claims to the contrary.

Meanwhile, Alex Salmond has insisted that it would be unthinkable for UK-wide research funding to be severed if Scotland became inde- pendent. The localisation of funding bodies could lead to the fairer distri- bution of funding across Scotland.

The case for independence, then, centres on the entirely laudable aims of broadening access for international students, expanding revenue streams for Scottish universities, and increasing the ability of the Scottish govern- ment to act with full autonomy on matters pertaining to its universities. It offers an opportunity to focus on the best aspects of the current arrangement, but it rests on a number of major assumptions – and more than a modicum of wishful thinking – regarding developments after the referendum.

On these matters, Salmond has made promises to voters signifying his certainty of success, but the question of whether he can realistically deliver on them looms large.

The case against

Scotland has a reputation in higher education to be proud of: for a na- tion of only five million to boast five universities among the top 200 in the world and one – Edinburgh – in many lists’ top 20 is no mean feat, and certainly not an indication of a system disadvantaged by being part of the UK. Scrapping the current constitutional settlement, argue unionists, would risk the prestige and financial viability of the Scottish higher education system while offering Scottish students relatively little in return.

Central to the unionist case is the fact that it looks incredibly unlikely that Scottish universities could continue to charge students from the rest of the UK £9,000 in annual tuition. While obliged by European law to offer students from other EU member states the same free education available to native residents, Scottish universities have been able to take advantage of a loophole to justify charging students from south of the border. It all boils down to Article 18 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, which prohibits discrimination against individuals by member states based on nationality, but – bizarrely – not discrimination within member states.

Should Scotland become an independent state in its own right, the consensus among experts is that there would be no legal basis to continue with the current arrangement. Amongst others, Paul Beaumont, professor of European law at the University of Aberdeen, has argued that “it is hard to see how this overt discrimination could be justified”, and former European commissioner for education Jan Figel has claimed that it would be nothing short of “illegal, a breach of the treaty” to charge UK students.

The SNP would thus be left with two equally unpalatable options: of- fer UK students free tuition as well, or scrap its flagship policy entirely and introduce fees for Scottish, British and EU students alike. The former would be unfeasibly expensive for universities (the annual cost has been estimated to be £150m), something likely to damage the qual-

ity of teaching and research; the latter would consign Scottish students to the absurd levels of debt currently endured by their counterparts south of the border and overseas.

The current settlement regarding research funding would also require renegotiation in the event of Scottish independence. Presently, universities north of the border enjoy a disproportionally high spend from central- ised UK funding bodies than those in England, receiving an average of £182 per head in comparison to a UK average of just £112. David Willetts, the UK science minister, has warned that this revenue stream – account- ing for 26 per cent of overall research funding in Scotland – “would cease” in the event of separation.

Claims that this would create a funding shortfall in the hundreds of millions smack of hyperbole given the ability of universities such as Edinburgh to attract significant private investment that would be unaffected by independence, but a reduction in research funding to some degree does seem inevitable. Depending on the scale of these cutbacks, the volume and quality of research output at Scottish universities – and subsequently their internation- al standing – could take a significant hit.

Combining the financial security of union with the freedom of devolved control over education policy, Scotland arguably enjoys the best of all worlds.

It is impossible to know exactly what is at stake given the lack of any sort of historical precedent, but if Salmond’s gamble fails, significant damage to the financial security and reputation of Scotland’s universities could become a reality.

Many crucial questions remain unanswered by the Yes camp, and Salmond’s insistence that these fundamental issues can be put off until after the referendum smacks of naiveté and political opportunism. The message from the No camp is clear: why take the chance?


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