An uncertain future for Scottish research

Scotland’s academics should be concerned about the impact of a ‘yes’ vote, says Jill Stephenson

June 12, 2014

Instead of speaking up, principals observe the docility the Scottish government requires

Both sides in the Scottish independence debate stepped up their campaigns this week as they marked the milestone of 100 days to go until the referendum.

A “yes” vote on 18 September could have major effects on Scottish universities: financially, for research and for teaching. If an independent Scotland were to become a member of the European Union – a probability – Scotland’s universities would no longer be able to charge rest-of-UK students tuition fees.

“Free” tuition for Scots is an article of Scottish National Party faith, but as Colin Kidd, professor of modern history at St Andrews, pointed out in a recent interview, Alex Salmond has tried to “buy off the universities, but he’s done it by crippling the finances of further education colleges”. “It’s the less well-off members of society who are trying to get a toehold on the education ladder. They’ve seen their choices and chances of getting on to college courses restricted because Alex Salmond has tried to buy off the middle classes who are sending their children to universities,” he said.

But the major area in which independence would have a profound effect is research. First, there is the risk of scholars in an independent Scotland losing access to funding from Research Councils UK; second, there is the possibility of Scottish government interference.

Scottish universities currently win 13 per cent of RCUK funding, noteworthy in a country with a population that is 8.4 per cent of the UK’s. The Scottish government “proposes to maintain the common research area” with RCUK, and Michael Russell, the Scottish education secretary, envisages Scotland paying a subscription to the RCUK and receiving “a certain amount of funding back”.

But the UK government opposes the idea of a single research area. In a defiant mood, the leaders of “Academics for Yes” claimed that Paul Boyle, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, had supported their case, leading the RCUK to issue this statement: “The way that the quote attributed to Professor Paul Boyle has been used is misleading in suggesting that the research councils support an independent Scotland remaining part of the UK research council system. Should there be a vote for independence the current system could not continue.” This type of distortion is typical of the “yes” campaign’s modus operandi.

Last month, 14 leading scientists wrote to The Scotsman newspaper to express their fears about the future of research funding in the event of a “yes” vote. They voiced frustration at the fact that universities and scientific bodies have felt obliged to remain neutral in the campaign because research also receives Scottish government funding. University principals have also remained silent. Instead of speaking up for the interests of their institutions, they observe the docility the Scottish government requires.

Russell’s view is that, in the event of separation, the views of Scottish academics and the Scottish government “might be aligned”. He expects Scottish members of research councils to be “more positive than they’re able to be at the moment”, attending council meetings as representatives of an independent country “without being mediated” or having to adjust their ideas to align with those in the UK. This raises the spectre of academics being representatives less of their discipline than of their country, which would – if it were tolerated – alter the deliberations of research committees.

Alf Baird, professor of maritime business at Edinburgh Napier University, has called for people in Scotland who do research to have a “Scotland agenda”. “Existing research and teaching at Scotland’s universities may very well be described as ‘world class’, but it is clearly not providing the solutions needed to help overcome Scotland’s continuing, deep-rooted problems,” he wrote in the Scottish Review. “Scots need to seriously consider the role our universities play in today’s society, and in the future. That role should primarily be to educate the people living in Scotland, to help develop and grow Scotland’s economy, and to better Scotland’s society.”

This narrow, nationalist training college view of universities may not be widespread, but it is worrying.

Together, these issues are a serious cause for concern for Scotland’s academic community.

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