Posted tagged ‘Scottish independence’

Scottish independence and higher education: a Commons committee perspective

August 11, 2014

This post was first published by the website The Conversation

On August 5, the House of Commons Committee for Business, Innovation, and Skills (BIS) published a report on the impacts of Scottish independence on higher education, business, and the postal service. But the committee’s somewhat unoriginal recommendations don’t really extend beyond a large-letter “No” addressed to the Scottish government.

For anyone imagining the BIS report is an impartial investigation, it is worth pointing out that the committee consists entirely of members of the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. These parties are all firmly committed to the case against Scottish independence. So it comes as no surprise that their conclusions constitute fairly standard rejections of the agenda set out in the Scottish government’s white paper on independence.

In relation to higher education, the committee decided to focus on two issues only: the question of tuition fees for students from the rest of the UK, and the possibility of the maintenance of a single research area in the British Isles. We can assume these particular choices were made because, in the eyes of the politicians involved, they pose the greatest difficulty for those advocating independence. Other important issues – such as academic and student migration, and further aspects of research strategy – were ignored.

What is more, the committee’s treatment of the two chosen issues is fairly superficial. The report contains minimal analysis, beyond the listing of some submissions made to the committee. It concludes that, if Scotland were both independent and a member of the European Union, it is doubtful whether it could continue to charge tuition fees to students from the rest of the UK.

Others have concluded similarly, as in recent research from the University of Edinburgh. But legal advice provided to Universities Scotland may offer a basis in EU law for the Scottish government to continue charging fees to students from the rest of the UK, post-independence.

At present, the UK is home to a single research area. This means that England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland contribute public funds to one pot. Grants are then awarded by Research Councils UK on a competitive basis. The report states that in the event of Scottish independence, a single research area would not be “practical” or “desirable”. Even if everyone agreed to a common research area, the report suggests that each jurisdiction would have to fund work by its own researchers, with no cross-border subsidies.

Some academics have already expressed concerns about the implications of independence for research funding. But I would suspect that in the event of Scottish independence, some mutually acceptable arrangement can be reached that maintains much of the UK research community, while also allowing Scotland to develop its own national research strategy.

Of course, the effect of a vote for independence may not be as significant for universities as in other areas, because education is already a fully devolved matter under the Scotland Act 1998. There is a Scottish cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning (currently Michael Russell), and a Scottish Funding Council, which distributes funding to universities and colleges and oversees national strategy.

Even now there is no such thing as a UK higher education “system”. Wales and Northern Ireland also have their own frameworks, which differ from that of England. Perhaps the question that the committee should have assessed is whether, if Scotland votes for independence, some UK-wide structures could or should be maintained.

While there is significant divergence now between Scotland and the rest of the UK in higher education, there are also common traditions and links between universities across these islands. This is expressed most visibly in the existence of a UK-wide academic and student community, in shared quality assurance principles, and in the assessment of research quality.

But there are very significant differences in funding. And it may be that, in future, there will also be differences in the principles of governance, arising from the review of Scottish higher education governance that I chaired in 2011-12.

The parliamentary committee clearly decided to make a partisan contribution to the independence debate. It has missed an opportunity to make a thoughtful assessment of how a common concept of higher education could continue to be nurtured in a new constitutional settlement, whether that involved independence or greater devolution.


The CBI, Scotland’s independence referendum and the universities

April 24, 2014

The following article was first published today by the Press and Journal, Aberdeen.

Universities play a key role in the community. They are engines of invention and innovation, and they are also spaces for debate in which all voices are recognized and encouraged. It is not always an easy role to play, and it gets most complex when issues being debated are controversial or in any way difficult. In a few months Scotland will be invited to take one of the most important decisions in several generations: whether it wishes to be an independent country. As one would expect, there are strong opinions on this question, and there is a robust campaign taking place leading up to the referendum itself.

Last weekend the campaign gained a new active participant: the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) registered with the Electoral Commission as a supporter of the No campaign. In doing so it created issues for at least some of its members: those who might favour a Yes vote, and those whose duty it is to remain neutral; this latter group includes the universities.

I have no doubt that this CBI decision was a wrong decision. It had previously expressed concerns about the impact of independence (as was perfectly appropriate), but declaring itself as partisan on the issue was something different, creating real problems for organisations that, also perfectly appropriately, hold a different view. We were not consulted before the decision was taken, but if I had been, I would have offered a robust opinion in the matter.

Some universities reacted to the CBI move by resigning immediately from membership. RGU took a different approach. While I immediately said that we disapproved of the CBI decision, I wanted us to reflect on how we could best deal with the problem that had arisen and that was not of our making. We are an industry-focused university, with many links and partnerships in the business community. Equally, we need to be sure that we are both remaining neutral in this important national debate, but that we also provide a safe space for both sides in the debate.

These are the principles that we will apply as we move to decide how we should respond to the CBI move. That is the duty we owe to our students, our friends and our partners in the wider community.

Subsequent to the publication of this article by the Press and Journal, and after extensive consultation, I decided that RGU will suspend its membership of the CBI, and will review the position after the Referendum.

Scotland’s choice

May 16, 2011

It has certainly been an interesting time to move to Aberdeen. As something of a political junkie I have over the years – but always from a distance – followed developments in Scotland. In the 1980s when England was pretty solidly Conservative Scotland stood out, and the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) was intriguing. My own political education really took place in my late teens in Germany, when Willy Brandt and then Helmut Schmidt defined the new social democracy. In Ireland it was always slightly difficult to find a political perspective based on political principle, but I got used to it and became at home there. So now, what to make of Scotland?

I arrived in Aberdeen just as the election campaign for the Scottish parliament was getting properly under way. I was able to register to vote in time, and so I needed to ensure that I had understood the issues and the extent to which the parties could deliver on their promises. The impression I got early on was that Scotland will need to be able to make some important political and economic choices, which will in particular secure a highly educated and skilled population and knowledge intensive investment. English people sometimes assume that Scotland has a higher reliance than England on public sector employment, which is not actually true: several regions in England are more public sector reliant than Scotland. But it is true that the future here must involve more entrepreneurial initiative and the promotion of new technology and life science industries. Also, Scotland seems to me to focus its priorities far too much on the ‘Central Belt‘, the area dominated by Glasgow and Edinburgh. There is a major need to ensure that development is more appropriately spread across the regions.

In higher education, the key issue may not actually be funding (though of course it is highly important), but the extent to which universities become more directly engaged with an agenda for political, social and economic renewal. The degree of interaction between universities, government development agencies and industry is not yet at the level it has reached in Ireland, and this too will be important for the country’s future.

I watched the various public debates between the party leaders, and on the basis of these debates, the manifestos of the parties, and their record in government and opposition, I felt I was able to make an informed choice. I will say only that the election outcome did not surprise me.

With the SNP’s overall majority now comes a much greater interest, both inside and outside Scotland, in the question of independence, or perhaps the level of autonomy that may be achieved short of independence. Politicians on both sides of the border and media pundits are lining up to have a go. One theme that seems to unite readers of the Daily Telegraph and usually progressive commentators such as writer Tim Lott (in the Independent) is the assumption or assertion that Scotland is bankrolled by the English taxpayer and that independence would see the country facing financial crisis or even ruin. Still, Scottish people may assume that the country’s oil has bankrolled the English taxpayer, but no matter. And in the meantime, some in the media are predicting that the actual model to be pursued by the SNP government will be ‘independence lite’, or a form of enhanced autonomy that won’t involve a complete break with the UK. And indeed there is a poll that suggests that more English people than Scots favour Scottish independence.

What do I think? I’m new here, but I have now spoken with a fairly large number of Scottish voters, and I am getting a very consistent message, so consistent that I am going to discard the normal caution of suggesting that this really isn’t a sufficient sample to be useful. Almost everyone I have spoken to who voted SNP has said the same. And to explain it, I might refer to the remark by a BBC commentator on election night, who suggested that the Scots had ‘lost their fear of independence’. That seems to me to get it absolutely right. It doesn’t mean they voted for it when they voted SNP. But it means that they knew that, by voting SNP, they were making independence a live issue. They might still voice caution when polled. But they are there to be persuaded, and expect the persuasion to come. They are not yet all in favour, but they are no longer determined to be against.

These will be interesting times.