After the referendum: what next for Scottish universities?

October 2, 2014

So it’s all over now. The Scottish electorate has voted, by a clear if not overwhelming majority, to stay in the United Kingdom, and as I write, the politicians are engaged in a struggle to meet the promises they made and to deliver enhanced devolution to Scotland, and maybe some sort of federal plan for the UK as a whole.

So what is next for universities? For a start, they (or some of their academics) should get involved in the constitutional soul-searching. If Britain is to become more of a federal state, this raises complex issues that are very unlikely to be resolved by the single expedient of having English MPs meet on certain days without the members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is also not really compatible with a genuinely federal country to have the federal government double up as the government of one of the constituent states. So there are major legal and political issues to be addressed and Scotland’s universities have several academics who can help.

But what about the wider setting in which Scotland’s universities now find themselves? One might assume that nothing much will now change: Scotland remains in the UK, and so rest-of-the-UK students can be charged tuition fees in Scotland as before, Scotland’s students can study for free, and the UK research councils will continue to fund Scottish research projects.

There are, however, some imponderables in all of this. If the Barnett formula changes (as some English MPs are suggesting it should), this may put pressure on Scottish public money, which in turn could affect funding for higher education. It is important to remember that the Scottish government has committed itself to maintaining university support at levels that provide similar resources to those enjoyed by English universities.

Second, many will assume that the referendum outcome has secured the place of Scottish universities in a single UK research area. On the assumption that some proposals from the Scottish government’s pre-referendum plans for an independent Scotland may survive in a more autonomous Scotland within the UK, it is possible that plans for a Scottish research council may not be off the table. This could provide more specifically targeted research funds for Scottish projects, while also acting as the point of contact with UK research councils. Therefore, it is not impossible that there will be some adjustments to the existing system. I would suggest that any such adjustments would be a worthwhile reform.

Also, in the meantime, the Scottish government remains committed to legislation to implement proposals made in the review of higher education governance that I chaired and which reported in 2012. This could still be introduced before the next elections for the Scottish Parliament in 2016.

While the referendum has confirmed Scotland as a member state of the UK, it is likely that the gradual separation of the Scottish and English higher education systems will continue over the coming years. But there will also continue to be many points of contact between the two (and with universities elsewhere in these islands). Scottish universities will (and must) continue to share with those elsewhere in Britain the key elements of institutional autonomy and academic freedom. While other things may move apart, these vital aspects of our higher education system will remain a shared and strongly defended legacy.

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