Recently Read: Scottish Independence and Higher Education

Under the Recently Read category, I usually post links and extracts from noteworthy articles that appeared in the internet in the previous week. This post is different: it brings together articles speculating on the impact of independence on Scottish Higher education, regardless of when they were published. I have tried to present a balance of views, both for and against the proposal for independence, but obviously I chose articles and extracts according to how convincing I found them, and my pro-union views will be evident. The last article in this collection is a guide on how to decide on how to vote – even if you have no interest in the Scottish Independence, or are not involved in the referendum, I strongly recommend reading it.

More power to the Universities?

Some people have argued that in an independent Scottish state, there will be an opportunity for universities to break free from the neo-liberal policies that have been imposed across higher education in recent years. This is a view that resonates in an article titled What might independence mean for Scotland’s universities? (Times Higher Education, 12 June 2014), as evidenced in the following extract:

One man not afraid to speak out in favour of independence is Willy Maley, professor of Renaissance studies at the University of Glasgow. For him, secession from the UK would offer a chance for Scottish universities to break free of the “corporate ethos” that he believes has wormed its way into higher education. A “target-driven, management-controlled model has been imposed across the UK”, he says. But independence could bring about a “much more devolved university system where academics have more power”.

However, this optimism is not universally shared. In the same article, Murray Pittock, Bradley professor of English literature at the University of Glasgow, and one of the leaders of the pro-independence group Academics for Yes, speculates that an independent Scottish Government “would also want ‘clearer state control’ to pursue economic objectives”.

What about research funding?

According to a report published by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, which is quoted in Times Higher Education (11 November 2013), universities in an independent Scottish state would struggle to maintain their research funding:

In 2012-13 Scottish institutions secured £257 million worth of grants from the research councils. This equates to about 13 per cent of the funds available to the UK as a whole, despite the fact that Scotland only accounts for 8 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) and 8 per cent of the population, says the report. The research councils generally do not fund work in other countries.

A similarly-themed article in the Guardian, notes that “to make up any future funding shortfall from the loss of central UK research council funding, [the Scottish Funding Council] would need to be more than double its current spend of £258m“.

What do academics think?

The views of several academics from many Higher Education Institutes across Scotland were published in a recent article in Times Higher Education (10 views for and against Scottish independence, 13 September 2014). Greg Woolfe, from the University of St Andrews, whose views are typical of the No position, is quoted as saying that:

The financial viability of both an independent Scotland and universities within it seems fraught with risk. Research-intensive universities north of the border will lose access to research council funds and perhaps to funding from major UK charities. Our universities will have to bear a greater share of the cost of shared facilities and exercises from Jisc to the REF. Locally orientated research priorities will limit what academics can work on. Students will suffer too if there is a brain drain from Scotland to the rest of the UK.

Proponents of the Yes campaign who are quoted in the same article generally expressed dissatisfaction with what were described as the right-wing policies and class-based education which they believed to stem from England.

David Shuker, also from the University of St Andrews, offers a slightly different perspective (Guardian, 9 September 2014). He writes:

The independence on offer so far, the separation of “them” and “us”, has been almost entirely political. “Them” are (mostly) English Tories. “Us” are mostly social democrats. A robust social democracy able to stand up to and reform neoliberal capitalism is very close to my heart (although exploiting damaging fossil fuel reserves and lowering business taxes seems a strange way to go about realising it). But independence is not about being a social democrat or not. It is about being Scottish or not. If social democracy was the real goal, then no-one north of the border would run away from a government they didn’t like to go and form another one. They would fight for what they believe in.

How, then, must one decide?

Even if the dilemma facing Scottish voters on 18 September pertained only to the impact of independence on Higher Education, it would be a very complex decision. But of course there is much more at stake, and the weight of responsibility must be daunting. Paul Cairney, Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Stirling, offers an excellent guide which can help decision making. He proposes two strategies, namely engaging critically with the information available, and simplifying the decision. Finding any specific extract of his guide and presenting it here would do injustice to the whole, so I recommend going over to his blog and reading it in its entirety. In fact, I think it should be required reading for all voters everywhere.

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