Former principal Brian Lang: Scottish independence would mean a “slow decline” for universities

Photo credit: University of St Andrews
Photo credit: University of St Andrews
Photo credit: University of St Andrews

In an attempted boost for the Better Together campaign, nine former principals of Scottish universities have come together to release a statement ardently backing a No vote in the independence referendum.

Dr Brian Lang, principal of the University of St Andrews between 2001-08, was among the signatories. “We are all very proud of what Scotland’s universities have achieved,” he says. “And we all worry greatly” that independence would put this success “at risk.”

[pullquote]If a country suddenly turns inward on itself, becomes parochial, where does that leave us?[/pullquote]

“A Yes vote would have severe implications for Scotland’s universities.”

In their statement, the former academic leaders argue that “the best and brightest future” for Scotland would be to stay within the UK.

Though they highlight the issues of research funding and tuition fees, Dr Lang emphasises that their most pressing concern is that of Scotland’s potential exclusion.

“The main thing, and what we feel most strongly about, is the barrier that this would create between the academics in Scotland and the academics in the rest of the United Kingdom,” he says. Scotland’s universities owe their success to their “cosmopolitan” nature.

“They’ve been outward looking, they’ve been entrepreneurial, they’ve carried Scotland’s flag around the world. To turn around and be inward looking, flying in the face of history, seems to us wrong.”

For St Andrews in particular, argues Dr Lang, independence could cause serious problems.

[pullquote]There wouldn’t be an immediate falling off the cliff, but there would be slow decline.[/pullquote]

If an independent Scotland were to join the EU – “and that’s a big if by the way” – then its universities would no longer be able to charge students from the rest of the UK tuition fees, under EU law.  With a significant proportion of RUK students attending St Andrews, Dr Lang says, we would lose out on a major “income stream” from these students.

The second major issue for St Andrews would be obtaining research funding, “bearing in mind that St Andrews is arguably the most research intensive university in Scotland”.

Much of Scotland’s research is funded by the UK Research Councils and charities. Funding from these sources “wouldn’t necessarily come to an end”, says Dr Lang, “but it would be much more difficult to come by.” Research funding is “won on a very competitive basis,” he says, suggesting it would become harder to argue for research grants in Scotland.

“Why should academics in England, Wales and Northern Ireland say – oh fine, we’ll let Scotland go on taking what we regard as more than their fair share. They’ve said they want out, let them go. What they’re doing is giving up access to our research funds. Let them go.”

Simply, Dr Lang is fearful that an independent Scotland would mean a decrease in the quality of the country’s universities. “There wouldn’t be an immediate falling off the cliff, but there would be slow decline.” He remains unconvinced that the Scottish government’s plans to maintain its high quality universities through “public funding alone” would work out.

[pullquote]I’m sorry, but I’m just not confident that they will be able to do it [/pullquote]

“Think of the promises that the Scottish government has made – free tuition fees, free health care, free prescriptions, free childcare, etc, etc. In order to fund all of that there will either have to be significant cuts or significant tax increases. The straight arithmetic, let alone the economics – I’m sorry, but I’m just not confident that they will be able to do it… So something is going to have to give.”

According to the former principals’ statement, a No vote will protect the current easy access to funding: “As part of the UK our funding will reach as high as our excellence allows, not as far as the budget stretches.”

Some academics have voiced fears that as a small nation Scotland would fail to attract the right quality of researchers. This concern, says Dr Lang, is completely justified.

“Internationalism, cosmopolitanism, is what makes universities what they are. If universities are about the creation of new knowledge and the transfer of new knowledge, that happens on a world-wide basis. If a country suddenly turns inward on itself, becomes parochial, where does that leave us? I think that academics from outside of Scotland would think twice about coming here, because they would worry – apart from anything else – about the financial stability and financial health of the institutions they might join.”

“But this is not just about money, it’s about mindset,” he says. Successful universities are “outward looking”, “entrepreneurial” and “they’re international, they look at the world.” Therefore, “to give up your most important partnership” goes against all of these aims.


  1. I’m confused by this argument that an independent Scotland suddenly become more parochial. Surely as we’d have control of immigration, it would probably less stringent than the UKs current entry requirements. We would (presumably) want to remain part of the EU. I would suggest we would have to be more outward looking than at the moment where we can rely on London to conduct foreign policy on our behalf.

    Nothing in the YES campaign thus far suggests to me that an independent Scotland would be more parochial. The only people I hear talking about the threats of closed borders and stopping existing partnerships are those who don’t support independence. It seems to me this parochialism is bit a of straw-man.

    • Dear L Woods,

      Look around the staff lists and lecture halls in Scotland’s strong universities and you will see that the current UK system does not restrict access to international researchers or international students. In fact, the UK university system is amazingly international, attracts scholars, students and funding from across the world and is second only to the US by any meaningful measure of international excellence. The question is not stopping international contacts from coming here, but whether they would still be attracted in the same way. A survey conducted amongst international students in Glasgow some time ago, highlighted how many of them had chosen to study there because it was a UK institution.

      To tear Scotland’s universities out of being part of this system would be greatly damaging. It make our relationship with leading centres of learning (such as Oxford, Cambridge or London) more distant and would make us less attractive in the various international markets. The effect of introducing borders where there weren’t any before would inevitably result in rendering researchers in Scotland more foreign to and more distanced from our colleagues in the cUK. Without the same access to competitive research grants, large UK-financed research facilities, or a joint pension scheme, we would become less UK, more “Scottish” and more parochial. Co-operation would still be possible, but it would be more difficult. Our relationship to the cUK would be like that of the RoI (minus the specific NI linkages).

      Some of this inward-directed focus is intended and part of what the nationalist undercurrent is aiming at: with the SNP education secretary openly advocating that Scottish researchers should push for and represent “Scottish” interests and in so doing be aligned with the Scottish government. The “Academics for Yes” group has called for the creation of a specifically Scottish “brand” in research that should be fashioned in contra-distinction to the UK system and used competitively against our new foreign colleagues in England, Wales and NI. The attempt to make something as inherent global as research “more Scottish”, strikes me as the very epitome of parochialism.

      Dr Lang has outlined the key dangers that separation would hold for Scotland’s top universities very effectively. We would do well to heed his warnings.

  2. This is definitely true and likely the reason I will vote no. The world is changing and Scotland’s universities are punching way above their weight (5 universities in the world top 200 from a country of 5 million). This is very likely due to their ability to access funding from the UK’s research councils. The common system with the RUK enables Scotland to attract international researchers. Face it, Irish unis aren’t as well known worldwide as Scottish unis. If Scotland were to become independent you can expect what happened to Irish unis to happen to Scotland’s unis. At best, Scotland would have 1 uni in the top 100 and perhaps 2 or 3 in the top 200. Research output would decline and Scotland will lose its relevance in the world.


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