The countdown to the Scottish independence referendum ticked past the 100-day mark this week, and we are now into the formal campaign period. Whether most people north of the border will notice the difference is debatable, though, with the ballot already dominating conversation to a degree about which politicians can usually only dream.
Waiting for a CalMac ferry crossing on Skye recently, I overheard two locals chatting. “We’ve got to make it stick this time,” said one. The other nodded furiously. No doubt there were others in the queue of cars lining the dock at Uig who were arguing just as vociferously for staying within the UK.
Yet while academics have formed “for” and “against” groups, universities have gone out of their way to remain neutral and their leaders have been conspicuous by their absence in the debate. Even in private most in senior positions are cagey about expressing a firm view, and those that do almost always add the caveat that they are talking in a personal capacity.
This reticence is grounded, perhaps, in the knowledge that the Scottish National Party will remain a powerful political force whatever the outcome.
Universities have gone out of their way to remain neutral and their leaders have been conspicuous by their absence in the debate
However, it is markedly different from the strong views voiced by many university leaders on the ramifications for higher education – and in particular research – of the upsurge of anti-European Union feeling.
If they have a view on the implications of leaving the EU, it’s hard to believe they don’t also have a view on the impact that a “yes” vote on 18 September will have for higher education.
In our cover feature this week, we pick apart the tangled thicket of post-independence scenarios for higher education. We also hear the view from some in Scotland that the country’s approach in this area is already a major point of difference from England.
Ferdinand von Prondzynski, vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University and one of the few to have stated his position (he is for independence), argues that the path taken in England with the introduction of £9,000 fees has had a “distorting influence” on the vision of universities as places where “intellectual objectives” come first.
Others, however, fear that while the government of an independent Scotland might retain the principle of free study, it would also seek to exercise “clearer state control” with a view to harnessing universities more explicitly as engines of economic growth.
It’s clear that higher education, a major strength in a relatively small country, will play a central role in the future prosperity of Scotland, and that its politicians, and voters, understand its importance (Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, often cites the Home Office crackdown on international student “immigration” as something that an independent SNP-led government would do differently).
This accentuates the lack of clarity from university leaders on whether they believe independence would be good or bad for higher education. The reasons for keeping heads down may be pragmatic, and no one’s suggesting that the ramifications for higher education will be make or break at the ballot box.
But in such a complex debate, those with a vote in the referendum need information and evidence about the choice they are being asked to make, and it’s up to universities – their leaders included – to do what they can to provide it.