Principals will remain neutral on referendum

June 19, 2014

I was very interested in Times Higher Education’s coverage of the Scottish independence referendum debate and its implications for higher education.

I feel obliged to correct the implication in the leader column (“Erudition needed for in-out vote”, Opinion, 12 June) and in Jill Stephenson’s opinion (“An uncertain future”, Opinion, 12 June) that Scottish university leaders have not been active participants in the debate.

In my view we have been very active, from a position of informed neutrality. As early as November 2012, Universities Scotland set out an extensive series of policy challenges for the proponents of each constitutional option in our publication Universities in a Dynamic Constitutional Environment. That set out in detail the policies that would be required to support universities’ success across a wide range of priorities including research, teaching, academic infrastructure and regulatory regimes. It challenged the proponents of all possible constitutional outcomes, including further devolution, to demonstrate how they could deliver these policies.

This work, and Universities Scotland’s intensive engagement with all sides, has fundamentally informed the policy positions that both the UK and Scottish governments have since adopted, both of which are strongly affirmative of universities’ contribution and the strengths of cross-border collaboration. It has also given us a platform for further challenge. For instance, while we have welcomed the Scottish government’s commitment to ensure sustainable arrangements for cross-border student flow, we have said to both the UK and Scottish Parliaments that we need to see the reasoning for the Scottish government’s preferred means of achieving this so that students and institutions can have confidence in it.

Universities have also provided a space for rational debate on the different proposals for Scotland’s future. My own university’s Five Million Questions project has provided a forum in which politicians from each perspective have been tested by audiences of academics and the wider community. Other universities have also promoted opportunities for free and rigorous debate.

As university leaders, we have taken these actions from a principled position of institutional neutrality. We strongly believe this is the right approach. It reflects the genuine diversity of opinion across the university sector. It also respects democracy itself: the right constitutional outcome for Scotland is, quite simply, the one that people vote for.

Pete Downes
Convener, Universities Scotland
Principal and vice-chancellor, University of Dundee


In your report on the prospects for Scotland’s universities in an independent Scotland (“You’ll win some, you’ll lose some”, Features, 12 June), Richard J. Williams gave a seriously misleading view of the role of Gaelic in Scotland’s universities and public life more generally. According to Williams, there has been an “inexorable” rise in the use of Gaelic in Scottish universities and the promotion of Gaelic is “a way of making a symbolic and public difference [between Scotland and] the rest of the UK” and “has nothing to do with a living language at all”.

In fact, only six of Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions make any provision for Gaelic, and this number has increased only by two since the Second World War. The total number of academic staff in Scotland that teach Gaelic or in Gaelic is only about 30. This number is no more than it was 10 years ago; it may even have decreased slightly. So much for an inexorable rise.

Five universities in Scotland have prepared Gaelic language plans in connection with the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, which was introduced by the then Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition government and passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament. The universities’ plans involve a number of specific measures to promote the use of the language, including some limited bilingual signage.

Measures to promote Gaelic in Scotland are not about creating some symbolic difference between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Instead they aim to give recognition to a long-marginalised cultural minority within Scotland and to encourage the increased use of the language. These policies are set out not only in individual organisations’ Gaelic language plans but also in the National Gaelic Language Plan, which details a wide range of aims and measures, with the overarching goal of increasing the number of Gaelic speakers and the opportunities to use the language.

Support for Gaelic enjoys cross-party support in Scotland. In the context of the current independence debate, many supporters of the Union are also strong supporters of Gaelic. At a recent debate held in Gaelic at the University of Edinburgh, it was striking that the only unpolarised moment came when the representative of the “No” campaign, former Labour MSP Alasdair Morrison, spoke forcefully of the importance of cross-party consensus on Gaelic and praised the Scottish National Party government for increasing the funding for Gaelic television.

Wilson McLeod
Professor of Gaelic, University of Edinburgh

Rob Dunbar
Professor of Celtic, University of Edinburgh


Thank you for your timely articles about higher education and the independence debate. On the specific question of tuition fees, it is important to be clear that accessible higher education is an extraordinarily strong tradition in Scotland. For hundreds of years, the country enjoyed four universities to England’s two, despite a far smaller population. Higher education here has never been a monopoly of the rich and powerful.

My grandfather, the son of a blacksmith, attended the University of Glasgow and went on to become a teacher; such stories are quite normal. Happily, we have suffered less of that sense of educational and class division so salient elsewhere.

Your leader column (“Erudition needed for in-out vote”, Opinion, 12 June) suggests that “higher education, a major strength in a relatively small country, will play a central role in the future prosperity of Scotland”. I fully agree, and I believe too that such prosperity will be best secured by continued commitment to the principle of free (at point of need) education – with or without political independence.

Alistair Duff

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