Scottish independence essay: higher education

In the past few months of the Referendum campaign, the status of Scotland’s universities has been one of the more debated subjects.

A graduation ceremony at Glasgow University. Picture: Colin Templeton
A graduation ceremony at Glasgow University. Picture: Colin Templeton

It is therefore with great interest that we have been reading the Scottish Government’s new paper on ‘Scotland’s Future: Higher Education Research in an Independent Scotland’.

One of the things we have been putting across to commentators in the UK media in the last few months is the very positive attitude the Scottish Government has to our universities. The leading role of Scotland’s universities internationally (five in the top 200 in the world, and the third highest citations per capita), and their role as engines of prosperity, fairness and social cohesion are stressed by this paper.

The better utilisation of our research and international profile for economic prosperity and Scotland’s presence in overseas markets are key parts of the next chapter for our universities, one which will enable Scotland to start bridging the gap between its strong HE sector research and development record with respect to the rest of the UK and its relatively weak performance in private sector R & D. Innovation is key to the future of an economy like Scotland’s, and the application of reason to knowledge in a context of material improvement - the core value of the Scottish Enlightenment - is how the Scottish Government plans to approach this issue. Frankly, we view this as much more liberating and exciting than the budgetary threat posed to research council budgets in London after the 2015 election, with all three Westminster parties committed to Conservative spending plans.

Given the debate there has been in recent months about research funding in an independent Scotland, we would specifically welcome the new Research Paper’s commitment to maintain funding at, at least, current levels, and to maintain the dual funding model of government and research council funding; the buy-in to a common research area run by the former RCUK (Paul Boyle of RCUK told MSPs (Scotsman, 27 March 2014) that ‘he hoped the cross-Border network would continue’ and that ‘the body “strongly supported” the idea of Scotland remaining part of it.’) and the commitment to keep political control out of research allocation.

We also welcome the innovative policies on international collaboration, the value of a separate Scottish voice in the EU and the opportunity to create a distinctive Scottish brand which would include the opportunity to build international relationships by allowing students from overseas to study here more freely. We are pleased that the Government has recognised the disproportionate success Scottish universities have enjoyed in the successful formation of spinout companies, with 21% of the UK’s successful trade sales or floatation over a ten year period. Economic growth and social benefits will walk hand in hand. Collaboration is easier for Scotland’s universities: only in the last few weeks, the first Scottish national graduate school in the arts and humanities has been opened, with a range of innovative joint studentships with industry partners. Innovation centres in Stratified Medicine, Construction and Oil and Gas show the way in which the Scottish Government is itself driving innovation.

It is important to state that these policy positions are taken from a position of excellence. Scottish higher education does not need either a hand up or a handout.

The existing commitment of major charities as well as Scotland’s disproportionate success in winning competitive funding means that we will continue to be sought after collaborators in a research environment increasingly being shaped by international funding and collaboration, not least with the EU, who are now major funders. We should not take EU membership for granted for the UK after Nigel Farage’s easy victory over Nick Clegg in their recent televised debates. UKIP are currently between 5/6 and 8/11 on to win the European elections on May 22. In the event of a No vote in September, can anyone be completely confident that EU research funding will remain accessible as referendum on EU membership becomes increasingly likely?

The increasing privatisation of universities elsewhere in the UK is causing massive strains in the system; major budget cuts are a certainty after 2015 and, if a change of UK government leads to a decline in the headline student fee, given commitments to cuts elsewhere, how would the resulting funding gap be closed? Overseas students continue to find it challenging to study in the UK, and many feel themselves to be unwelcome. They have many other places to go.

Even with limited resources and limited fiscal autonomy under devolution, the Scottish Government has provided strong support for the universities, so what reason is there to doubt that this would continue under independence? Government would be stronger to develop our international profile as universities and a country, the profile of an excellent, cohesive and collaborative sector, committed alike to blue skies research, economic development, social cohesion and fair access to the educational opportunities in which the statistics consistently show we excel.

We believe that not since the Scottish enlightenment have scholars and citizens had such a robust opportunity to significantly expand the resources and improve the over all climate for research in higher education in Scotland. The eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote “It’s when we start working together that the real healing takes place... it’s when we start spilling our sweat, and not our blood.”

We believe it is now the appropriate time for Scotland to seize this opportunity to work even more effectively with scholars throughout the world to increase the quality, capacity and funding for our research. The twentieth century American educational philosopher John Dewey posited that every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination. The scholars of the twenty-first century are equally committed to advancing science through global collaboration. We must generate an even greater audacity of our collective imaginations to insure that the next enlightenment in our future nation state is one that will be remembered for having helped lead the world in research excellence.

• This article was provide by Yes Scotland and was written by Prof Murray Pittock (University of Glasgow), Prof Bryan MacGregor (University of Aberdeen) and Prof Joe Goldblatt (Queen Margaret University)