Countdown to the Scottish referendum: ensure a global outlook is continued

Ferdinand von Prondzynski on the importance of the international nature of Scotland’s academy, no matter how the vote goes

July 24, 2014

Like many academics, I have moved between countries throughout my career. I studied banking in Germany, law in Ireland and did a PhD in England. I worked as a lecturer in Ireland (with sabbaticals in the US and in Ecuador) and in England and back in Ireland and now in Scotland. I have been a member of research groups that have included colleagues from the US, almost every European country, and some African and Asian countries. Globalisation may be a controversial phenomenon elsewhere, but the academy is truly global, and I don’t know anyone who suggests it should be otherwise.

As there is already a significant amount of movement of academics and students across international borders, you might think that the creation of one more border – and moreover one that isn’t expected to be fortified by border posts and barbed wire – would not make much difference. However, it may not be that simple, and Scottish independence could provide both opportunities and problems.

First, the opportunities: one current matter that has not been devolved to Scotland is immigration. Here, most of Scotland’s academics will agree that the Westminster government’s obsession with reducing inward migration has been a major problem for universities. Universities want to recruit the best staff, wherever they may be from, and admit a reasonable number of overseas students.

The Scottish government has emphasised that it will seek to run a more relaxed migration policy, and this is likely to find a welcome in universities. The government has stated that in the event of independence it will operate a “controlled, transparent and efficient immigration system that best meets Scotland’s needs and supports our future growth”.

The more challenging question is about student mobility within what is currently the UK. As is well known, Scottish (and EU) students pay no tuition fees if they attend Scottish universities. Students from the rest of the UK (rUK) pay fees that are capped at the maximum English level. Overall, the number of students at Scottish universities stands at 37,400, of which 5,300 are rUK students – a substantial proportion, and indeed it is an even more significant proportion at some individual institutions. The question that faces the Scottish sector is whether these students will continue to cross the border (and where appropriate, receive maintenance grants and/or loans from the UK government) and what the position will be regarding tuition fees. Legal advice on the latter has been given to the Scottish government, and separately to Universities Scotland, and without getting into the detail it appears that legal experts believe it may be possible to keep fees for rUK students under EU law. However, whether this is so cannot be stated with certainty until the issue has been properly tested in law.

Most members of the academic community will feel that it is important to maintain the cross-border and indeed international nature of higher education, and will want to receive reassurances on these matters. Perhaps a good many also believe – as do I – that when the political dust has settled, the protagonists, including both governments, will want to resolve these matters to help secure that outcome, whatever the referendum result may be.

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