Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

‘Yes’ 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 ‘Yes’ side of the debate.

‘A momentous opportunity for radical change’ by Ashley Husband Powton

‘We have shifted from having a market economy to being a market society. We live at a time where almost everything can be bought. Over the past three decades, markets – and market values – have come to govern our lives as never before’, states Professor Sandel in his What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Perhaps nowhere is this more alarming than in our universities.

Like salt and rice, gas and oil, a university degree is now a market commodity. A Chinese student is worth more to a Scottish university than a Scottish student. Fetching annual fees of over £16,000 (over £24,000 for medicine), compared to my meagre £1,820, he is worth more than me. Our ancient seats of learning are the Walmarts of education, engaged in aggressive and costly global recruitment and expansion. In the pursuit of compound revenue, lower standards and poorer aspirations grease the cogs of the enrolment machine. Our esteemed academics are a customer service, delivering to the satisfaction of their clientele. Our university principals are corporate executives, reaping obscene annual salaries in excess of a quarter of a million pounds. Graduation is the termination of a business contract.

When did students become customers? When did revenue usurp learning? What’s next? Shareholders? Corporate sponsorship? St Andrews, Scotland’s first university, brought to you by McDonald’s.

The value which we assign to knowledge and learning is degraded and corrupted through its commodification. A university degree is diminished in worth and integrity when students are admitted through quotas determined by their fee status and not on their academic merit. The vision of our universities as revered institutions of research and knowledge, the pinnacle of the nation’s academic excellence and intellectual rigour, cannot be reconciled with the reality of increasing numbers and falling standards.

More worryingly still, allowing education to be bought and sold is not fair. It entrenches and perpetuates a society divided by wealth and inherited privilege. The neoliberal onslaught of the past three decades has coincided with a radical increase in social inequality, visible in the UK and the US from the late 70s and spreading on a global scale from the late 80s. The UK today is the second most unequal country in the developed world after the US. The independent think-tank High Pay Centre reports that in the UK ‘the gap between rich and poor has widened and the share of income going to the top 1% has more than doubled (from 6% to 14%). If the growth in inequality continues at its current rate, we are heading towards Victorian extremes in the next 20 years’. It is more imperative than ever that our universities do not remain the realm of the rich.

Many claim that it is not possible to turn back from marketisation, that the excellence of our universities is dependent on the revenue generated by astronomical overseas fees. This reasoning fails on three major accounts. It fails to acknowledge that the excellence and integrity of an institution is profoundly undermined when you can buy your way in. It fails to take responsibility for the moral and social implications of putting education up for sale. Is increasing revenue a fair trade-off for the perpetuation and exacerbation of social inequality? What sort of values towards education are instilled by its commodification? Are there some things which money cannot, and should not, buy? Lastly, and worst of all, it requires that we accept that there is no alternative.

When did we become so disenfranchised and disempowered? When did neoliberalism, a fanatical fringe ideology not long ago, become dogma? When did we come to blindly believe that this is all there is?

There are alternatives to the status quo, and, increasingly, there is the appetite and the drive to explore them. And this is where September’s referendum becomes crucial. No change is on offer at Westminster. The UK is going in one direction only. But the cult of neoliberalism has not indoctrinated Scotland to the same extent and this year presents a momentous opportunity for radical change, with consequences far outwith our own borders. For Scotland, and for the rest of UK, we must dare to reject the status quo. We must send the clear and unequivocal message that we have had enough of the ways things are, and that we no longer accept that there is no alternative. 2014 could be the year that the neoliberal facade begins to crumble.

Independence will herald a profound shift in power, aspirations, attitudes and expectations. It will take hard work, focus, dedication and courage to realise them, but the stakes are too high, and the alternative too unbearable, to be scared of change, challenge and responsibility.

In Scotland, our very national soul is at stake. For centuries, this has been rooted in a proud and powerful consensus that education is not the privilege of the wealthy, but the common right of all, together with a deeply-ingrained conviction that education is a public good and of fundamental benefit to the common weal. ‘From the beginning the Scottish universities have been among the most democratic in the world – duke’s son and cook’s son sat on the same student benches and shared the same fare at the common table’* wrote Sir James Irvine, Principal of the University of St Andrews between 1921-1952. Throughout the Middle Ages, Scotland was home to a democratic and egalitarian system of learning unparalleled in Europe. By the time of the Enlightenment, Scotland’s five universities, well attended by all social classes, stood in stark contrast to the two universities serving the whole of England, which were almost exclusively the preserve of the elite. Scotland’s intellectual contribution to the world has been, and remains, wholly disproportionate to its wealth and numbers.

Today, Scotland has more top universities per head than any other nation in the world. Our modern principles on education are still moulded by our deep-rooted values. The abolition of tuition fees was one of the first acts of the newly reconvened Scottish Parliament in 1999, ensuring that education remains based on the ability to learn, and not the ability to pay. Our First Minister has stated that the ‘rocks will melt with the sun’ before Scottish students will be forced to pay tuition fees.

The limited powers of devolution have served us well, but simply mitigating the worst excesses of hostile Westminster policy is not enough. Only with the power to fully determine our destiny as an independent nation can we firmly reject the relentless marketisation of education. And there is perhaps no country better placed than Scotland, the land of the democratic intellect and the lad o’pairts, to reassert the value of education as a human investment and public good, not a market commodity. The principle and practice of free education could be enshrined in a written constitution. Our ancient universities could regain their dignity and integrity as revered seats of the highest level of learning and reclaim their role as national public institutions, serving the common weal. Our nation could make a profound contribution to Europe and the wider world, rejecting the Anglo-American cult of neoliberalism and leading the way to an alternative. We could safeguard our national soul, our laudable tradition of equality of opportunity in education and a profound recognition of its fundamental and unquantifiable value to society. Above all, we would take responsibility for our own destiny, allowing our universities and our nation to flourish or fail based on decisions made by us in Scotland.

We need to be brave, bold, and inventive. We need to be creative and positive. We need to take great pride and strength in our educational heritage and in our enduring values. And we need to do it urgently.

In his essay entitled ‘Inequality Is a Choice’, world renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz writes, ‘… I see us entering a world divided not just between the haves and have-nots, but also between those countries that do nothing about it, and those that do. Some countries will be successful in creating shared prosperity — the only kind of prosperity that I believe is truly sustainable. Others will let inequality run amok. In these divided societies, the rich will hunker in gated communities, almost completely separated from the poor, whose lives will be almost unfathomable to them, and vice versa’.

The UK is not set to be one of the countries that does something about it. With a deeply-ingrained historical commitment to the public good of education and its accessibility to all regardless of ability to pay, and with a government and an ever increasing bulk of the population committed to radical rejection of the neoliberal status quo, Scotland just might be.


Irvine, Sir James CBE (1942) The Scottish Universities (pamphlet) p. 12.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *