What 'no' means for Scotland

Will higher education be better protected or was a chance for accountability lost? David Bell and Willy Maley on the referendum

September 25, 2014

No: it’s the right answer

Thank goodness for that. Even now, a week after the event, I still feel a shiver down my spine when I think about the consequences of a “yes” vote.

But, while “nothing will ever be the same again” is the most overused cliché in British politics, in this case, it does have the benefit of being true.

To criticise the “no” campaign may seem churlish in light of the result. But its early failings generated the panic that led to one of the most extraordinary 10 days in British politics. A former prime minister, Gordon Brown, set out plans for further devolution that have the potential to reshape the constitution of the UK. To introduce them so late bordered on treating the electorate with contempt.

Much has been said about the political awakening represented by the referendum. But the feelings of disengagement and disillusionment with the “Westminster elite” that were never far from the surface may have been exacerbated by the post-vote politicking. I don’t, for instance, remember the “vow” to the Scottish people to devolve more powers to them being accompanied by a simultaneous requirement to ensure “English votes on English issues”. Unless enhanced devolution for Scotland is delivered quickly, support for independence will quickly be rekindled.

But what of higher education in the aftermath of the referendum? Even its most ardent supporters would be hard pressed to demonstrate that universities were a “swing” issue. But it is important to acknowledge the quiet but highly effective role played by Scottish vice-chancellors. Sensibly, they resisted the temptation to take sides, recognising the inevitable conflation between personal and institutional views.

Instead, universities became highly respected places of debate. In the best Scottish tradition, they contributed to the commonweal and enhanced their standing in the process.

The risks of separation were clear, not least on the research front. The value of the common research area across the UK was one highlighted by academics supporting the “no” campaign. That, of course, is safe in the aftermath of the vote. But might it be under pressure for another reason? More direct control of the research budget by Scotland could be a plank of further devolution, irrespective of the benefits to Scotland of the currentposition.

The arrival of a new Scottish research council (which is apparently being dis­cussed) could cause tensions in the rest of the UK. It is highly unlikely that the Scottish government, far less universities in Scotland, would accept a less advantageous position than at present in terms of their proportion of UK funding. But might there be pressure for an even better deal as part of the concessions the Scottish government seeks from Westminster? That could come in a variety of forms, including through enhanced income tax receipts in Scotland. This might trigger pressure to renegotiate Scotland’s position within the current UK-wide research framework. And Scottish universities would probably not be pleased if the Scottish government sought increased leverage over them in return for a higher education “devolution dividend”.

Scotland already has a distinctive position in respect of tuition fees, and that is unlikely to change. But Scottish higher education is not immune from English worries about the inflationary erosion of the £9,000 fee’s real-terms value. Scottish universities, with their different funding mix, have always been concerned about having sufficient resources to retain competitiveness.

So what about the debate beyond Scotland on constitutional arrangements and their effect on universities? An English parliament would mean that the majority party in England would have a stronger say on decisions regarding, for example, tuition fees and any higher education bill that might emerge after the election. The impact of that would depend largely on what follows by way of detailed proposals, but my hunch is that it would be modest.

Beyond national issues, higher education could benefit from further devolution to the cities and regions. Universities are major players in local and regional economies, and enhancing powers at that level could be beneficial. This would almost certainly be more useful than an English parliament, real or virtual.

There is no doubt that the outcome of the referendum will have significant implications for higher education. But a sense of perspective is required as we face many other major issues.

Growing the science budget, ensuring the UK is open for business to international students and understanding more about Labour’s policy on tuition fees will do for starters. To tackle them, we really are better together.

Sir David Bell is vice-chancellor of the University of Reading.


It should have been ‘aye’

Scottish independence, the biggest political decision for a generation, demanded public engagement by academics. Such engagement is central to what we do. But apart from defending pet subjects or worrying about pensions, what did academics contribute to the debate about Scottish independence?

My university – Glasgow – emerged in an independent Scotland: its founding document declared that study “raises to distinction those that were born in the lowest place”. This commitment to the democratic intellect and civic responsibility persists. Anton Muscatelli, my principal and vice-chancellor, encouraged robust debate around independence but said the university itself took a neutral view.

Institutional neutrality was not universally observed, however. Louise Richardson, principal of the University of St Andrews, told The Times in March 2013: “If we were cut off from national research councils, it would be catastrophic for this university. We would lose top academics. We would fail to attract serious academics.” The word “national” in her comment tells its own story. Scaremongering about a brain drain is not new, but coming from the head of Scotland’s oldest university it carries weight and, just last week, emails surfaced suggesting that Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, had asked Richardson to clarify her position on the Scottish government’s university funding strategy.

Whatever your views about Richardson’s intervention, it is clear that academics must be involved in discussions about the shape of the society they work in. As a member of “Academics for Yes” (AYES), I contributed to discussions, although as a member of a subpanel of the research excellence framework, I had little time for campaigning. Perhaps the REF (and endless faculty restructures) helps to explain why academics, who might have been expected to be enthusiasts for innovation, were wary of further change. Times Higher Education’s survey suggested that even those in Dundee (a city with a “yes” majority) backed Better Together.

But while universities need not reflect their immediate environment, what do academics see as their responsibility to those most neglected by Westminster?

While the elderly and affluent said “no”, the younger and poorer - constituencies that should concern universities - voted “yes”. As the seventh of nine children (an access student like six of the others), I found some of the reasoning of “no” academics disappointing: “I have English relatives”; “I’m worried about my lump sum”; “My research area will be at risk”; “I was brought up to believe in Britain”. I heard far more sophisticated arguments on the streets, where the concerns were food banks, Trident and democratic accountability. While “economic” arguments against independence focused on scare stories, Nobel-­prizewinning economist Joseph Stiglitz addressed an Edinburgh audience arguing for higher education as a public good.

What we have witnessed in the course of this debate is a shake-up on a par with the English Revolution of the 1640s, when the British monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished by the London Parliament. (The old order was restored with an offer of Monarchy-lite in 1660.) Thomas Hobbes recognised the role universities played as public institutions whose students became educators, and he cautioned that the people’s minds were “like clean paper, fit to receive whatsoever by Publique Authority shall be imprinted in them”.

Universities remain potential motors for change. We need another Enlightenment. We need to listen to Stiglitz - as well as to Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University, whose progressive 2012 Review of Higher Education Governance report still awaits implementation.

This debate was ultimately about democratic governance. As academics we must put our own house in order, be more engaged with the communities our campus sits among. Widening participation in higher education is as vital as widening participation in politics. St Andrews has a particularly poor record in this. Last week, Scotland’s poorest communities voted for change. Academics preferred stasis. We need to talk.

A former Glasgow principal in an independent Scotland, John Major (educated at Cambridge and Paris), published arguably the earliest Better Together proposal, Major’s History of Greater Britain, in 1521. His latter-day Unionist namesake, a non-university educated former British prime minister, warned that a Scottish parliament would be the “slippery slope” to independence. Both Majors were right, although the more recent one has still to see his prediction materialise.

Willy Maley is professor of Renaissance studies at the University of Glasgow.

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