Distinct, not separatist

April 27, 2007

Scottish universities flourished before and after the Act of Union. And while they always focused on the nation's history, they were never nationalistic. Lindsay Paterson considers why

The relationship between the Scottish universities and nationalism - Scottish and British - conforms to no standard pattern. Yet it does have much to say about the nature of Britain, as a culture and as a polity. Universities have been central to nationalist movements in Europe for two centuries. From Ireland to Bohemia, from Italy to Norway, to the anticolonial movements of the mid-20th century, it has been commonly supposed that a mature nation requires a cultural assurance that can be conferred only by committed research and advanced education.

It was in the archives, in oral history, in archaeological excavation and in philological reconstructions that nations were born in the 19th century. It was in the academies that were founded around that scholarship that new leadership cadres were cultivated, immersed in a new way of looking at the world because they no longer trained in Berlin or Vienna, St Petersburg or Stockholm, London or Paris. Wales, in part, had to fight for this - but Scotland did not.

Struggle was not wholly absent in Scotland. The modern study of Gaelic was a classic instance. Debates about the character of Scottish university education in the late 19th century through to the Robbins era did have an aura of non-political nationalism, claiming that the very identity of the nation depended on the broad character of the traditional arts degree. The study of Scottish history could be said to be the precursor of nationalist historiography: Walter Scott offered a prototype of how a small nation should narrate its past. But the key point that made Scotland different was that it already had, in the 19th century, the academic apparatus to do this. Scotland's universities dated from well before the Union of 1707, and had flourished.

It would be idle to speculate about whether the Scottish Enlightenment could have happened if Scotland had remained formally independent, but what was undeniable when other small nations were trying to create a higher education was that the Union had not prevented the most firmly university-based branch of the international Enlightenment from flowering magnificently. The universities that were then bequeathed to the 19th century had well-established links to the thoroughly indigenous national system of schools: there was no sense at the turn of the 20th century that talent was being denied opportunity. Their graduates then migrated to pursue opportunities throughout the Empire.

Not only was there nothing to fight for; but the identity that the universities embodied was a prime instance of what the historian Graeme Morton calls "unionist nationalism". Also, Scottish identity was not believed to be antagonistic to that of the British: the two were complementary, both aspiring to an enlightened universalism. Scottish graduates acquired from their university education, at least up to 1914, an essentially Germanic idea of the role of the state, transcending particularism in the general interest. The post-1918 generations could then move into positions of leadership in a newly powerful state assured that they, as Scots, were acting for Scotland precisely because they were not acting against Britain.

The growth of the central state in the 20th century, however, disrupted the old assumptions. With the founding of the University Grants Committee in 1919, the Scottish universities moved into a British political framework separate from schools and higher education colleges. Academic Britishness retained its aura of universalism at least until the 1950s; but that came to be seen as being in tension with Scottishness, which, in the view of university managers, came to be associated with parochialism. Numerous concerns of this sort can be found from the 1930s, as political relations between the universities and the Scottish Education Department deteriorated. Tensions surfaced publicly with the growth of Scottish political nationalism from the 1960s; and the final political flourish of this old British university culture was its success in having the universities kept out of the powers of the proposed Scottish Assembly in 1978.

Responding to these developments was the post-1960s movement towards Scottish self-government that has now triumphed. Distorting history - as nationalist movements are compelled to do - it drew on the standard European model of the relationship between universities and the nation to propose a more antagonistic analysis of the role of British culture. The modernisation of the late 19th century was reinterpreted as anglicising, the destruction of a "democratic intellect" by imported notions of hierarchy and merely utilitarian knowledge. The turning away from Scotland of the UGC-funded universities was interpreted as a cultural betrayal, splitting the unity of Scottish education. The growing proportion of academic staff at Scottish universities who had been educated outside Scotland - as careers came to be British then global - was interpreted as a threat to the nation's cultural identity. The same was claimed of the growing number of students who, likewise, came from outside.

The devolution of managerial control to the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council in 1992 merely exacerbated the sense that the deeper cultural questions were not being addressed. In this context, the increasingly shrill British rhetoric of university management could be readily portrayed as British nationalism of a reactionary, even imperialist, sort.

That is the acrimonious university world in which Scotland's new leadership class was educated: two thirds of MSPs and the same proportion of senior civil servants were educated in Scottish higher education institutions. The university managements have been forced to accommodate the new era, although not without some last twitchings of disdain. This can be seen in the occasional - futile - opposition to the Scottish Parliament's having responsibility for the universities at all, a certain cursoriness evident in appearances before parliamentary committees, a common impression given in public debate that the Scottish Parliament's famous abolition of fees paid in advance is a nuisance in return for which universities deserve implausibly generous increases in their grants.

Most staff get on with the job, which, pragmatically, now means that a growing number of them work on various kinds of knowledge transfer to the new polity: money and interesting new opportunities have made devolutionists (though rarely nationalists) out of people who previously would have kept Scottish politics and culture at a firm distance.

The minority of academics, meanwhile, who have always maintained an interest in Scottish topics - contributing to the flourishing of Scottish culture that has been the nebulous underpinning of the political movement - continue to do what they have always done. Now more often than not they argue against the new myths that a self-governing entity needs to sustain itself, or myths politicians of the British realm try to assert in response. The recent excellent scholarship about the 1707 Union is a prime instance. So too has been the best of the analysis of the operation of the new institutions, much of it funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and Leverhulme, indicating by a subtle irony, perhaps, that the aspiration to dispassionate understanding found in old British institutions still has a lot of intellectual energy left.

The story of the Scottish universities is, then, the reverse of that told elsewhere. They were not nationalist creations; and, just as universities founded by nationalist movements have become increasingly detached from their local roots, in Scotland the process has been the opposite, being pulled back into a realm from which they had become distanced. The Scottish governing class understands this, having passed through these institutions themselves. The university leadership has responded largely by offering their staff as agents of knowledge transfer. That might work so long as we live in a technocratic age. But as soon as debate on the purpose of universities moves back to cultural questions, as it inevitably will across Europe, the current uneasy compromise in Scotland will become untenable.

Lindsay Paterson is professor of educational policy in the faculty of education, Edinburgh University.

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