Exactly three years ago I arrived in Aberdeen to take up the post of principal of Robert Gordon University. Just over a month later, and against all expectations, the Scottish National Party won an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament elections and announced that there would be a referendum on independence in 2014. This referendum will take place on 18 September.
What will the outcome of this referendum, whatever it may be, mean for higher education in Scotland? One possible answer would be, not very much. Education, including higher education, is already a fully devolved matter under the Scotland Act 1998, meaning the Westminster government has no jurisdiction over Scottish higher education. There is a Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council (more usually known as the Scottish Funding Council) distributes monies to universities and colleges and oversees national strategy.
But this is not the whole story. There are still some UK-wide elements of the system –including research funding made available through the UK research councils; the framework of collective bargaining between UK trade unions and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association on behalf also of Scottish universities; and the international support provided to universities by the British Council and UK embassies abroad. There is significant mobility of staff and students across the border. Scotland’s universities are all members of Universities Scotland, which is affiliated to Universities UK, which represents higher education institutions across the United Kingdom as a whole.
So what might happen should Scotland opt for independence in September? Will this bring to an end the remaining UK-wide elements of higher education, or could some of them survive? Equally it could be asked whether, if Scotland votes to stay in the UK, further devolution could also have a similar impact.
One possible result, which would be welcome, is increased awareness that Scotland’s higher education is not part of a unified UK system. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people commenting on the “British” system of higher education, with an assumption that the English method of university financing also applies in Scotland, to take just one example. Even English academics sometimes talk about the “UK system”, apparently oblivious of the fact that there is now no such thing.
When I chaired the review of Scottish higher education governance in 2011 and 2012, we spent some time identifying characteristics that make the Scottish system special. One of these, we suggested, was the idea of the “democratic intellect”, a concept originally developed by George Elder Davy of the University of Edinburgh; we placed it in a contemporary context and suggested that it meant that the pursuit of learning and scholarship is one in which society as a whole has an interest, and that this should be reflected in our understanding of higher education and should inform policy measures.
As we approach the referendum, we should reflect closely on how we can build a Scottish system that attracts widespread support in Scotland while retaining those UK-wide elements that strengthen the academic community and sustain scholarly excellence.