After the referendum: academics query the future of research funding

Despite the ‘no’ vote, it is still unclear what the setup for Scottish institutions will be

September 25, 2014

The Scottish people may have spoken, but academics are finding that some questions remain unanswered about the future of higher education in the wake of the independence referendum.

With the UK government promising more devolution to Holyrood in the wake of the “no” vote, the debate centres on the impact these powers might have on Scottish universities, particularly in terms of funding.

Before the referendum, unionist parties had pledged to preserve the “Barnett formula”, which guarantees a certain amount of funding for Scotland from the UK government. However, Prime Minister David Cameron has yet to repeat that assurance following the result, and one academic warned that it could be at risk as a devolved Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK is recalibrated.

Some potential consequences of further devolved powers to Scotland are already starting to surface, with details emerging of meetings being held between universities and the Scottish National Party government with a view to creating a dedicated Scottish research council. This would allow Holyrood to use new tax-raising powers to support more research on top of UK-wide funding.

But Murray Pittock, Bradley professor of English literature at the University of Glasgow, said that extra tax powers for Scotland would be of limited assistance to higher education if funding directed via the Barnett formula did come under threat.

“The risk may be that the Barnett formula is on borrowed time,” said Professor Pittock, who was part of the Academics for Yes campaign.

“If it disappeared, the consequences would be serious because [devolving extra tax-raising powers] would not address the loss that Scotland would face.”

Meanwhile, the future of the Scottish government’s tuition fees policy looks stable in the short term – there had been warnings that the current stance of charging students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland to attend Scottish universities would have had to end in the event of independence – although that could change if the SNP loses power after the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections.

Another major fear of “no” campaigners was that Scottish academics would lose access to UK research council funding, but that also seems to be safe. However, Ferdinand von Prondzynski, vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University, said that the way grants were accessed might need to change.

“While it is desirable for Scottish universities to continue to have access to [research council] funding, if there is greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland the mechanisms for such interaction may need to be looked at, and it may well make sense to channel this via a Scottish research council,” he said.

Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, said that the future of issues such as research funding would have to be closely scrutinised.

“We want to keep a close eye on negotiations that are now taking place between unionist parties on how they move forward on devolution to make sure they don’t have any impact on higher education funding,” said Professor Pennington, a member of the Academics Together group that campaigned for a “no” vote. “We want to continue to do as well as we do up until now [in terms of funding]. If there is a rush to getting a settlement, there might be downsides which haven’t been thought through.”

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