Scottish independence essay winners

The two winning entries in our competition explore the arguments for and against independence and what it might mean for the academy

August 14, 2014

Source: Alamy

No to independence

Why are our universities in the same box as Johnnie Walker and the Loch Ness Monster? Why is the independence prospectus so mean and timid?

Eric Hobsbawm knew its dark side. Nationalism was his subject when he gave the Wiles Lectures at Queen’s University Belfast in 1985.

In his subsequent book, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, he wrote: ‘No serious historian of nations and nationalism can be a committed political nationalist…To be proudly attached to Ireland is not in itself incompatible with the serious study of Irish history. To be a Fenian or an Orangeman…is not so compatible.”

I am a patriotic Scot, induced so by domicile, but not, I hope, the kind of benighted nationalist also famously depicted in George Orwell’s essay Notes on Nationalism. So here goes.

The unions between England and Scotland – which began with the Union of the Crowns in 1603 and culminated in the 1707 Treaty of Union – brought British money to Scottish universities. The stronger the union, the more secure the funds. The first donation for building a “librarie within the colledge of Glasgow” was a 1633 promise of £2,400 from Charles I; a note in the donation book says “This soume was payed by the Lord Protector anno 1654”.

King’s College in Aberdeen still uses the Cromwell Tower, built in 1658 with help from General Monck; and a 1659 building appeal by its rival in Aberdeen, Marischal College, raised £2,200 from Eton, £320 from the University of Cambridge and £641 11s from the University of Oxford.

In 1889 the nine existing English and Welsh universities received their first grants from the Treasury, totalling £15,000. But Scottish universities had been regularly getting such funding since the 1830s; in 1889 the total for the four was £42,000.

And Scottish universities still get lots of British money. In 2012-13, they won UK research council grants worth £257 million: 13.1 per cent of all awards went to a nation with only 8.4 per cent of the UK population. Research Councils UK and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills say the system that delivers this could not continue if Scotland left the UK, and unionist academics see this as a very big reason for remaining part of the UK. They predict that proposed negotiations to keep research funding arrangements in status quo after a “yes” vote are as hopelessly optimistic as the failed 1783 fundraising trip to London by Princeton University president John Witherspoon, formerly minister of the Laigh Kirk in Paisley but, more pertinently, a signatory of the US Declaration of Independence.

The Scottish National Party government’s White Paper, Scotland’s Future, rightly extols the excellence of Scottish universities, although its claim that Scotland “has been an educational leader since the early part of the 15th century” is silly: at that time it had only one small university (St Andrews), while those at Bologna, Cambridge, Montpellier, Oxford, Paris and Salerno all had 200-year-old international reputations.

But puffing past achievements is normal for a nationalist production. Such a document would also be expected to promulgate plans based on the benefits flowing from independence. But the White Paper doesn’t do that. Only 10 of the 42 paragraphs it devotes to universities and research describe post-independence plans. Five deal with tuition fees and the wish to continue charging students from the remaining UK countries; three propose continued access to RCUK funding; one indicates that levels of public investment in university research will be “at least maintained”; and one proposes post-study work visa reform. And the 39-page supplement, Higher Education Research in an Independent Scotland, published in April, adds nothing new.

The White Paper lists 22 “gains from independence”. Only one mentions higher education and research, namely “an economic policy that can be tailored to take advantage of Scotland’s world-class universities and key growth industries like food and drink, life sciences, and tourism”.

Why are our universities put in the same box as Johnnie Walker and the Loch Ness Monster? Why is the independence prospectus so mean and timid? The reasons relate to politics, presentation, parsimony and philosophy.

Politically, the White Paper is all about persuading undecided referendum voters that independence will be without risk. There will still be a pound in your pocket, you can still watch Strictly and there will be no border guards at Gretna.

'Say no to Scottish independance' campaigner

At very best, the short-term offer for universities on Independence Day is the status quo. But for science the outlook is bleak

Presentation is as much about being silent about the bad as trumpeting the good. Science gets no mention in order to avoid embarrassment since it is currently one of only two areas of public spending from the Scottish budget that receives less per head (£47) than in the UK as a whole (£56) and there are no plans to change that after independence. Nor is there any mention of the continuation of Scottish funding for research in UK facilities that have big science programmes from which Scotland benefits, such as the Met Office.

The White Paper’s authorship is anonymous, but the parsimonious hands of Edinburgh civil servants are all over it. Don K. Price’s characterisation of the British administrative class in his 1954 book, Government and Science, is still relevant: “a profoundly conservative force – not in the sense of being opposed to left-wing economics, but in the sense of looking on the government and its programme as a single coherent machine in which inconsistency cannot be permitted. Any novel idea is an inconsistency that could cause temporary waste and disorder and inefficiency and would probably detract from the current programme.”

As for philosophy, the influence of the late Sir Neil MacCormick looms large. The son of one of the SNP’s founders and the only public intellectual that Scottish nationalism has ever had, the onetime University of Edinburgh law professor, SNP MEP and adviser to Alex Salmond from 2007 until his death in 2009 moved from his 1970 view that “if devolution worked well we could abandon the notion of proceeding to independence”, to “independence-lite”: in practical terms, joining a European “commonwealth” of nations.

At the White Paper’s launch in November 2013, Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP deputy leader, described it as “a comprehensive guide to an independent Scotland” and “without parallel as the most thorough and detailed blueprint for an independent country ever produced”. Yes, a 649-page document did not precede the independence of South Sudan, induce the break-up of the Soviet Union or lead to the collapse of Yugoslavia. And it certainly passes the nationalist grievance test with honours: exactly half its 332 references to Westminster are pejorative. But comprehensive it is not.

Its description of Scottish universities is cursory and misleading. For instance, its statement that they “receive a third of their research income from the Scottish Funding Council and a further quarter in competitive funding from the research councils and national academies” is just an average for all Scottish universities. The five that are in the top 200 in Times Higher Education’s latest World University Rankings received, in 2012-13, a combined total of £203 million from the Scottish Funding Council for research and £497 million for research from external sources, including £194 million from the research councils. But many other Scottish institutions receive tiny fractions of this. So the analysis is as useful as a weather forecast that gives only an average temperature for the whole country – which could, incidentally, be all an independent Scotland will get, as it parsimoniously plans to purchase its forecasts from the Met Office in England.

At very best, the short-term offer for universities on Independence Day is the status quo. But for science the outlook is bleak since leaving the UK means leaving a research system that ranks second to the US in achievement and is the world leader in delivery per pound because of intense competition in a big system that gets significant support from its state sponsors. The SNP does not even intend to have a minister with a science portfolio, unlike those planned for sport and the Gaelic and Scots languages.

Worst of all will be the lack of opportunity to challenge government policies – on science, higher education or anything else – by democratic process. The parliament of an independent Scotland will be unicameral, so holding the executive to account will rest with parliamentary committees. But their track record at Holyrood is feeble. Their membership reflects the representation of political parties in the Parliament. After deliberating they divide along party lines, the party with the parliamentary majority wins and the executive is safe. The interim constitution published in June is silent about this.

Sir Neil is greatly missed. His reaction to the disarray into which the European “commonwealth” has been plunged by the rise of nationalism would be very instructive. As an expert on constitutional matters, I think he would also have reminded the authors of the White Paper and the interim constitution of Lord Justice Salmon’s 1966 Royal Commission on parliamentary committees. In 1679, one such committee found Samuel Pepys guilty of “Piracy, Popery and Treachery” and committed him to the Tower of London. But the evidence from professional informers was so suspect that he had to be released. Salmon said that the committee “had no claim to impartiality. It was actuated solely by party political motives. This is a characteristic defect of such committees…which has persisted throughout their history.”

The Treaty of Union “Ordains That the Universities and Colledges of Saint Andrews Glasgow Aberdeen and Edinburgh…shall Continue within this Kingdom for ever”. I see no good reason to repeal it.

Hugh Pennington is emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen. He has given evidence to parliamentary and assembly committees at Westminster, Edinburgh and Cardiff and participated in the 1998 Northern Ireland Assembly Transition Programme. He chaired an inquiry for the Secretary of State for Scotland and a public inquiry for the Welsh Assembly Government into E. coli O157 outbreaks in 1996 and 2005 respectively.

Man wearing 'Yes Scottish, not British' denim jacket

Yes to independence

What’s going to make the difference are things that are far harder to present in White Papers and other reports. I’m talking about hope and rage

The approach of the “no” campaign is typically to set out various nightmare scenarios into which an independent Scotland would be plunged. Regarding the academy, these involve the loss of international prestige and research council funding, and a potential flood of undergraduates fleeing high fees in the rest of the UK.

While the Academics for Yes campaign has provided pretty sound rebuttals to these scenarios, I believe the pro-independence movement could take a much more enlightened approach to the latter issue, which would greatly strengthen the case for independence as it relates to the academy.

Whatever the legal grounds for charging £9,000 fees to students from the rest of the UK while Scottish and other European Union students retain the right to free Scottish higher education, the SNP’s intention to preserve this status quo even after independence is morally and politically indefensible.

This issue is important not so much because what the campaigners say now will definitely transpire. Like everything else, it will be up for negotiation in the 18 months after independence, and in subsequent Scottish general elections. It is important because of what it represents. It is one of the few issues in the higher education debate that actually strikes a moral and political chord – and it is on those terms that independence will be embraced or rejected on 18 September.

However well researched the facts and figures are on each side of the debate, what’s going to make the difference are two things that are far harder to quantify and present in White Papers and other reports. I’m talking about hope and rage: hope for the possibilities an independent Scotland would bring with it, and rage at the current state of the union. This is as true for universities as it is for healthcare, immigration and foreign policy, to name but an important few.

But is there much to be hopeful about in the Scottish academy? Despite the reintroduction of free tuition for Scottish-domiciled students, haven’t Scotland’s universities generally gone in much the same direction as those in the rest of the UK? Haven’t they been as implicated in what causes so much genuine rage and heartfelt despair among academics? Haven’t they embraced metrics and participated just as avidly in the research assessment exercise and research excellence framework, and the National Student Survey? Haven’t they been just as likely to use zero-hour contracts while pushing their senior managers’ salaries into the stratosphere? Was it not University of Aberdeen principal Ian Diamond who recently suggested that academics be employed on nine-month contracts?

So the Scottish higher education system is little better than that in the rest of the UK: this is the rage. The hope lies not in maintaining Scottish universities as they are, as the SNP would like, but in using the powers a sovereign Scotland would have to create a genuine revolution. It would be futile to propose blueprints now, but the “yes” campaign needs to define some of the parameters within which higher education in an independent Scotland could be fairer and more progressive than it is today – and than remaining in the UK allows it to be.

Free tuition must be not only maintained as a point of principle, but also extended to include students from all parts of the world. The fees charged south of the border are damaging not only to students’ future financial autonomy but also to their role as learners. As universities increasingly rely on income from tuition fees, boosting their reputations becomes imperative because this is what they sell to students.

Man with Scottish flag painted on face

Staying in the UK would extinguish hope for a system that doesn’t dull students’ potential and hope that higher education can be open to all

One way to do this is to embrace metrics such as student satisfaction scores, which can be manipulated by making students feel as though they’re getting a good education at a good institution regardless of its actual quality. Institutions can also inflate grades and provide flashy experiences in place of facilities that genuinely support learning. Whether this happens or not (and by many accounts it does) is beside the point – as is the question of whether it happens more in the rest of the UK than it does in Scotland. The point is that the current system in the rest of the UK incentivises this type of mercenary behaviour.

A further consequence of the status quo is that students no longer work solely for their own benefit as learners; the university also has a stake in it. Every second a student spends studying can be seen as increasing their chances of obtaining high grades: a product the university will package as reputation and sell back to school-leavers and their parents. So, contrary to the popular narrative of students becoming consumers, which is bad enough, they are in fact becoming university workers – and paying for the privilege.

In many ways, Scottish universities are currently forced to charge fees to students from elsewhere in the UK in order to meet financial holes that would otherwise open up in their budgets. An independent Scotland, with full tax-raising powers, would have the authority to cut fees for all students and to fund universities properly through income and business taxes. It could even write free education for all into its constitution and thus hold true to the ideal of education as a process of individual and community development and empowerment, rather than simply another way to make money.

Immigration is another issue regarding which the higher education sector in an independent Scotland could be fairer and more progressive than elsewhere in the UK. With the looming prospect of a Conservative/UK Independence Party coalition following the next UK general election, we face an increase in immigration controls and a restriction of access to higher education to all but a moneyed international elite. Even now, those applying for student visas are required to have £7,200 (£9,000 if studying in London) in their bank accounts and to be able to come up with as much as £80,000 over three years (or more for a four-year Scottish degree) to support themselves during their studies – excluding visa and registration fees.

In addition, academics in UK universities are forced to be complicit in what many see as this unjust and racist system. As a teacher in a UK university, I have no choice but to work, unpaid, for the UK Border Agency by taking attendance in seminars. Make no mistake: attendance sheets have nothing to do with pastoral care and everything to do with controlling foreign students once they are in the country.

This, then, is the message of hope: hope for a higher education system that doesn’t dull students’ potential as learners by making them slog away for the reputation of the university; and hope that higher education can be open to all, regardless of race, nationality or income. These are things that remaining in the UK would make impossible.

And to those who would say that these are romantic ideas that couldn’t be put into practice, I say let’s at least try. Romance and hope are what is needed in a country, as a driving force for real progressive change. For all aspects of life in Scotland, a vote for independence will be just the beginning: the beginning of a push towards a country and a university system that embodies the values of equality and freedom that, in contrast to Westminster, lie at the heart of Scotland’s current centre-left political consensus.

Another Scotland is possible. Another university is possible.

Thomas Swann is a PhD candidate and graduate teaching assistant at the University of Leicester’s School of Management, and social networking manager at its Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy. He has donated his £500 prize money to the Women for Independence campaign group.

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