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‘No’ runner up in the HEPI / Times Higher essay competition on Scottish independence

  • 14 August 2014

Earlier this year, we launched an essay-writing competition on the likely impact of Scottish independence on higher education, with prizes available for the best essay on each side. We are very grateful to everyone who entered and today’s Times Higher publishes the two winning entries.

Here on the HEPI website, we are publishing the entries of the two runners up. Below is the runner up on the ‘No’ side of the debate.

A Syllabus of Errors: Why Scottish independence is not compatible with Scotland’s higher education system by Callum Yourston

As the referendum draws closer, we must be realistic and assess what Scottish independence will mean for our country, and for those of us at university or college, our higher education system. As a student at a Scottish university, I have long wondered what a Yes vote will mean for my current degree, and any subsequent degrees I may decide to undertake at a Scottish university. It is highly probable, despite unsubstantiated SNP claims, that we will lose a significant amount of research funding. However, funding is not the sole issue in this debate; the SNP, within the White Paper, have made huge contradictions on the issue of tuition fees for British students. These two key issues signify why independence is both not in the best interest of Scottish universities and has too many internal flaws for a safe transition to complete autonomy.

As an independent country, we will lose funding. We gain a substantial amount of all our research funding from grants made by United Kingdom-wide research councils. This amount in monetary terms comes to £257million and is 13% of all available funds in the United Kingdom. Due to our status as one nation, mutual gains are made; Scottish institutions gain funding and the rest of the UK and said institutions benefit from our research. The SNP looks to continue this symbiotic relationship in an independent Scotland, an outlook that is frankly unlikely and naïve. Based on historical precedent, we can see that these UK research councils rarely, if ever, fund research in foreign countries, with an independent Scotland being no exception. In order to compensate for this loss of funding, an independent Scotland would have to at least invest 0.23% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) into funding, or find this funding elsewhere. In an independent Scotland, could the new government afford to fund Scotland’s research opportunities to the same scale we can achieve as part of the United Kingdom?

Other organizations also contribute heavily to Scotland’s research funding, a luxury we stand to lose in the eventuality of a “Yes” vote. Governments agencies are a significant contributor to Scotland’s research funding; the Ministry of Defence and Department of Health both have significant research and development programmes within Scotland. The MoD budget is almost exclusively invested within the UK, and not abroad, in order to maintain operational advantage and to secure supply, meaning this would be lost should we become an independent state.

In addition to public funding, Scotland receives substantial funding from private organizations, which contributes heavily to Scotland’s total research funding. Across all these organizations, £1.1billion is invested per annum across the UK, 13% of which is invested to Scotland, totaling £143million. Cancer Research UK alone spent £34million on Scottish researching in the 2012-2013 academic year, including at the University of Stirling, which is home to the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Research. As a result of international administration costs and taxes that arise as a result of independence, many of these charitable organizations would find it both more complex and more expensive to fund research in Scotland, and thus may relocate elsewhere. Thus, independence would be a truly Pyrrhic victory for Scottish education; whilst we would have gained our autonomy, we also would have lost a substantial amount of research potential. The SNP distort the extent that Scotland rely on the UK in terms of funding; in Scotland’s Future it is stated that a third of funding comes from the Scottish Research Council and only a quarter comes from the UK wide research councils. However, a further 30% come from UK government departments, as well as UK charities, with UK wide funding amassing around 63% of all funding in Scotland. Independence would be a devastating blow to our research opportunities, and this is not a loss Scottish research can afford to take.

It must also be noted that as part of the UK, we have access to 221 international research facilities around the globe, including CERN and the European Southern Observatory. As an independent state, there is no guarantee we would still have access to these, nor is there any guarantee we would be able to afford access to them. With the University of St Andrews being the current UK frontrunner in Physics and Astronomy, a loss of membership to use facilities such as CERN would be hugely damaging to Scottish STEM research opportunities, an area Scotland has historically excelled in. Furthermore, there is again no guarantee we would even be able to use British research infrastructure, and the UK is under no obligation to extend the present terms to an independent Scotland, despite claims by the SNP that we will be able to continue these links. It is the best interests of our researchers, in order to maximize the opportunities and resources available to them that Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom.

Tuition fees in an independent Scotland are an unanswered grey area, which exemplifies the many discrepancies in the pro-independence argument. Currently, tuition fees stand as such; Scottish and students from other European Union countries may attend Scottish universities for free, RUK (English, Welsh and Northern Irish) students pay up-to £9000 per annum and international students pay a fee determined by the individual institutions. In Scotland’s Future, the SNP have outlined that Scottish and EU students will continue to have fees waived whilst RUK students will continue to be charged fees. This is a clear conflict; the UK, as a EU country, would therefore be entitled to free tuition fees, and denying them this would “not be legally sustainable”, as stated by the Westminster-based Committee for Scottish Affairs. The rationale behind this, according to Scotland’s Future, is that Westminster has a “market-driven” approach to tertiary education, and thus until this is changed RUK students will be charged for “taking advantage of our high quality education”. This policy is little more than a political commentary on Westminster’s stance on higher education, and the thinly veiled attack has weakened the credibility of the SNP arguments on education. The SNP claim charging RUK students is allowed under EU law as an “exceptional circumstance” and should Westminster change its tuition fees policy, an independent Scotland may reassess its own policy; however, this argument is weak, at best. EU students should have the same rights in another country within the European Union. Thus citizens from EU countries are automatically entitled to study in other EU countries and they should not be paying higher tuition fees than the citizens of the country where they are studying. The SNP policy relating to RUK students clearly contravenes this, and there is no “exceptional circumstance”, simply discrimination against students from other parts of the UK. These contradictions simply show the internal flaws with the nationalist argument, and thus convey that there are too many errors for a safe transition to independence.

Tuition fees and funding are interlinked; should the Scottish government concede and abide by their own policy regarding to EU students, Scottish universities will lose £150million from RUK student’s tuition, which makes up a substantial amount of funding. The SNP has pledged both equal funding opportunities as well as free tuition fees, however, where do the finances come from? Cutbacks would have to be made elsewhere, however, the SNP have given us no indication of where the money for funding would come from, aside from unrealistic views that we will be able to continue our funding links with the UK. The chance that Scottish students would be able to attend university for free whilst still maintaining the level of research output we have today is slim. Something would have to give; yet the SNP insist that they will be able to maintain the status quo in an independent Scotland. Cuts would have to be made somewhere, and with the importance placed on STEM subjects in modern society, the fear is that art and humanities will have their research-funding cut, especially the more niche subjects such as Classics and anthropological studies.

Independence will create barriers, and it is the current absence of barriers that allows all British researchers, Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish, to exchange ideas, recourses, facilities and funding freely, and maximize research to the best of our ability. Until we know where we would receive research funding from in an independent Scotland, if we received it at all, it is safer for Scotland to remain part of the UK. As part of the UK, our funding is secure; we have guaranteed membership to world-class domestic and global research infrastructure, there is free-flowing exchanges of ideas and use of facilities. The SNP have promised us all of this in an independent Scotland, but there is no sure way to say if they can deliver on these promises. Thus, for our tertiary education system, it is imperative we remain a part of the United Kingdom, where Scotland’s research will flourish.

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