Majority of Scottish academics set to vote ‘no’ in referendum

Survey reveals that staff are divided by discipline over independence

September 11, 2014

The majority of staff at Scottish universities are set to vote “no” in next week’s referendum on independence, and think that remaining in the UK would be better for the country’s universities, according to an exclusive survey by Times Higher Education.

But the survey, which was conducted last month and attracted more than 1,000 responses from academics and administrators, also reveals that academic staff are deeply split by discipline over how they will vote on 18 September (see box, “Science v arts”).

It shows that the “no” vote has a 13.6 percentage point lead over “yes”. This is similar to many polls over the past few months of the general population, although the final result was thrown into doubt this week by a YouGov poll giving the “yes” campaign a narrow lead.

James Naismith, Bishop Wardlaw professor of chemical biology at the University of St Andrews and a member of the pro-union Academics Together, said he believed that opinion on campus against independence had actually hardened, despite growing support for it elsewhere. “The majority of academics discern that, even under the most optimistic scenarios, independence will harm universities,” he said.

But Murray Pittock, Bradley professor of English literature at the University of Glasgow and a leader of the pro-independence group Academics for Yes, argued that THE’s survey lead for “no” was not as large as would be expected for a group largely drawn from the top social classes who, as polls have shown, are more likely to be pro-union.

He also claimed that opinion on the ground at universities was swinging towards the “yes” campaign, although he accepted that majority support for independence at Glasgow meant that “it is not really easy to say if this is reflected” elsewhere.

Opinion against independence appears to grow stronger when respondents are asked what outcome would be better for Scottish universities, rather than how they would vote. More than 55 per cent of respondents said that remaining in the UK would be the best outcome, compared with 30.2 per cent who said independence would be better. The rest either thought the result would not make any difference, or were not sure.

Although the majority of “yes” voters thought independence would be the best outcome, a quarter thought it would not make any difference to Scottish universities, or were not sure. A handful even said that universities would be better off in the UK.

By contrast, “no” voters were more convinced (96 per cent) that remaining in the UK would be the best option for Scotland’s institutions.

Fears about losing access to UK-wide sources of research funding loomed large in responses from those planning to vote “no”.

Julian Blow, professor of chromosome maintenance at the University of Dundee, wrote that “Scotland wins a far greater share of research council funding than their 8.4 per cent of the UK population” and other sources such as the Wellcome Trust could cut the amount of grants they award.

“This suggests that an independent Scottish government would have to increase its spend on research grants by 25 to 50 per cent just to maintain current levels,” he said.

But many “yes” voters want independence to escape what they see as an undesirable, market-driven higher education culture emanating from England.

Murdo Macdonald, professor in the history of Scottish art at Dundee, wrote that the “overriding reason” for voting “yes” was to “resist the American-style marketisation of higher education driven from south of the border”. “It is ironic that Scotland is now the remaining representative of the post-war British consensus with the respect to the importance of free education,” he said.

Additional reporting by Martha Elwell and Jack Grove

No to independence

“It seems to me folly to try to break up one of, if not the, most successful multinational and multi-ethnic states. I…fear an outflow of academic talent from Scotland as we lose vital sources of research funding and have to impose fees on Scottish and English young people alike”

Andrew Williams
University of St Andrews
School of International Relations

“I believe independence will make our world narrower, smaller and a harder place for all of us to find work and flourish”

An administrator at Robert Gordon University

“We rely on UK charitable donations to carry out our research. We have been given no idea of how an independent Scotland would maintain this level of funding as most of the current funding would be lost if we leave the UK”

Sharon Mudie
University of Dundee
College of Life Sciences

Yes to independence

“With the introduction of huge tuition fees in England, and the increasing privatisation of university services across the UK, I think the only way we can protect free higher education in Scotland is with an independent ­Scottish government”

Tara Thomson
University of Edinburgh
School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures

“The scare stories that research funding would collapse in an independent Scotland simply don’t wash with me: all my academic life I’ve worked on the basis that good-quality research proposals attract funding”

Sean Semple
University of Aberdeen
Centre for Sustainable Development

“The attitude towards education in Scotland is unique and very positive. I think that with independence this is more likely to be consolidated”

Chris Seenan
Glasgow Caledonian University
School of Health and Life Sciences

Scottish Referendum Poll (11 September 2014)

Science v arts: subject-specific results

Scottish academics are starkly divided by discipline when it comes to the referendum, with those in science far more likely to vote “no” than those in the arts and humanities.

Susan Shaw, former vice-principal of the University of Strathclyde, said that scientists and engineers had greater need of outside grants to fund their research than those in the humanities in order to pay for expensive labs and equipment, and were therefore more nervous about losing access to UK-wide research councils.

Murray Pittock, Bradley professor of English literature at the University of Glasgow, suggested that the content of academic work could also lead to different ways of thinking about the referendum.

“Arts, humanities and social science [academics] are people whose own work leads them to be very conscious of location. All these people work on culture and society. That’s very important in what’s driving ‘yes’,” he said.

Although humanities and social science research was often conducted internationally, “it doesn’t quite have the same borderless sense as science”, he suggested.

Of the academics sampled, 55 per cent were from a STEM or clinical discipline.

Scottish Referendum Poll (11 September 2014)

Regional divide: university results

A breakdown of the survey results reveals that some universities are hotbeds of pro-independence sentiment, whereas others are staunchly pro-union.

In some cases, the differences in opinion between universities might be explained by academic respondents’ disciplines, which are correlated with how academics will vote (see box, “Science v arts”).

Three-quarters of academic respondents from the University of Edinburgh – one of the institutions least convinced about independence – were from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) or clinical disciplines, which are more likely to lean towards voting “no”.

Almost two-thirds of respondents from the University of Glasgow, the institution that is most pro-independence, came from arts, humanities, social sciences and modern foreign languages subjects, which correlate with a stronger vote for “yes”.

The vast majority of University of Dundee scholars were from STEM and clinical disciplines, which may help explain why the institution ranks as the most pro-union of all the listed Scottish universities.

But other results are harder to explain using a breakdown of academic subjects. More than eight in 10 academic respondents from the University of St Andrews worked in arts, humanities, social sciences and modern languages, but the university was one of the most hostile towards independence.

And at the University of Aberdeen, staff were more likely to vote “yes” than average despite the proportion of STEM or clinical respondents being in line with the average.

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Reader's comments (3)

I'm a physicist who is voting Yes. Our education system, is slowly being forced down a road to conformity with the rest of the UK. I like the values that our education system has, from primary school to post-graduate study, and don't want to see them being slowly eroded. Independence will re-invigorate these values. Regarding research funding, I do not like the way the research councils dictate the research directions that can be pursued by channeling most of the funding into certain 'themes'. This is not real research, but research by committee and can only frustrate real breakthroughs which are most often very unexpected - certainly beyond the foresight of the committees that decide the funded themes.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS The problem is that for the most part – and we are indeed very adept at this – we have become a nation not of actors but of reactors. Historically, we have so preoccupied ourselves with reacting against one form of cultural domination or another that we have lost much of what we are. As Muir so aptly put it in “Scotland 1941”: Courage beyond the point and obdurate pride Made us a nation, robbed us of a nation. Some time ago, I took issue with the above quote, written by a scholar and musician (in fact, that person was myself), bemoaning the present neglect of Scots language, literature and music in our schools. To my mind, the argument was over-schematised: it did not properly weigh into the balance the independent, probing nature of the Scottish mind that has so often given rise to, for example, an Adam Ferguson, with his objective understanding that every civilisation exacts its price – always more of one thing and less of another; to a Walter Scott, with his complex dialectical representations of our history that Lukacs and the socialist literary historians so admired; to a Hugh MacDiarmid who identified in the Scottish character – and he himself manifested so brilliantly – the Caledonian Antisyzygy: the ability to hold, simultaneously, two mutually exclusive perspectives, opinions. In short, I think it does not do justice to us as a nation of thinkers and questioners: those, for example, like John Muir – essentially, the creator of the national parks movement in America - who could move into a new environment and uniquely recreate it; reshape it, just by dint of their own inquiring minds. As Mahatma Gandhi once noted : ‘A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes’. If that is true (and I think it is), we should, in this debate, be asking far more philosophical questions about who we are; who we wish to be. I fully realise how necessary it is to argue about currency; about the EU; about Trident missiles; about all the ‘issues’…but not to the exclusion of any discussion of certain fundamental questions. And I begin to wonder if all the discussion over canny matters isn’t just a mask for our overpowering and stultifying fear. Are we indeed so frightened of failure; frightened of success? The ultimate question: do we believe in ourselves? Actors or reactors? These are socio-psychological questions that need to be addressed. Or at least pondered in earnest. Just reflect on the nature of the campaign thus far…on both sides? Money, money, money. I thought we were supposed to be a society with socialist leanings? So, how is it that the keynote of the campaign revolves so much about whether we will – or will not - be £1,400 per family better off? Maybe we should, rather, be asking the question whether it might not behove us to be £1,400 worse off (for those who can manage it) for the universally coveted right of self-determination? Maybe not. What will the auld Burns lyrics be like in 200 years : ‘We are boucht an sold for Scottish gold…’? Hard cash. Currency. Was that the primary concern for all the wee nations who passionately fought for independence over the past 100 years or so? I ask you : what aspiring nation has ever baulked simply due the problem of currency? Certainly not Norway (1905); Finland (1917); Iceland (1918); Ireland (1922) – to cite just a few examples. And our own independence campaign should (by rights) have made all of us more aware of these important examples. Ireland in 1922, for example, had been in the same position as Scotland (issuing its own bank notes backed by London); then floating its own currency as the punt in 1926 – which eventually drifted apart from sterling; then joining the European Monetary System. Not a problem. And all the talk of resources. Westminster claims we do not have them in sufficient quantity; we assert, most emphatically, that we do. Fine; one needs resources to survive. That is axiomatic. But who ultimately defines what is meant by ‘resources’…Westminster? Years ago, as a young student in Aberdeen, I witnessed an incensed debate, between two of my mates, on the subject of independence. These were the heady early days of ‘it’s Scotland’s oil’. Nonetheless, one of my mates asserted (in the broadest South Ayrshire accent imaginable) that if Scotland ever went independent he would be on the first train south. (I could imagine the reception.) ‘What do we actually have here’, he exclaimed in an excoriating rasp: ‘heather and rocks….rocks and heather’? ‘We.. have…’, I heard my other mate retort with the crescendoing power of an Indian satori, ‘our minds’. And there it was: 2000 years of history encapsulated in four words. The hale boorach : Gododins, Declarations of Arbroath, Medieval Makars, Reformations, Vernacular Revivals, Scottish Enlightenments, Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions, Protest Movements, Scottish Renaissances, Folk Movements, Upper Clyde Work-Ins – you name it. The greatest resource we have: our minds; our people. The amazing folk – with all their perfections and imperfections – that inhabit this landscape. Will naebody come forward to remind us? Individuals are a resource in themselves, and they create the resources we all need as time unfolds. For resources are in no way a fixed commodity sanctioned from on high…and remaining for all time. What was it in the 17th and 18th-centuries : wood, animal and wind power. In the 19th-century : manufactured gas from, for example, the likes of coal. And so on and so forth. Only creative folk will determine what the fuels of the future are to be. And let us hope that they have the wisdom to plumb for those sources of energy that will continue to sustain this planet; not just this nation. All this is to say that there are great challenges before us. What do you think? Adam Ferguson ( I mentioned him earlier) stated that without a high degree of direct challenge a nation would founder. He feared above all (to quote Duncan Forbes, his editor) the creation of a ‘second-rate sort of society full of second-rate citizens pursuing comparatively worthless objects’. And he viewed our society from the vantage point of the Scottish Enlightenment. At any event, we could do with a bitie more of the perverse, moody questioning of an Adam Ferguson or Hugh MacDiarmid before we put the matter to rest. Then, if you are willing to leave your comfort zone; believe in the industrious and creative nature of our people (who, whichever way you slice it, will have to continue to be industrious and creative in any context, British or otherwise); then… bet on this country: vote YES. If not: vote NO. Maybe life’s a gamble; maybe it’s just a gambol. On 18th September, it will all be over…or, maybe, it will all have just begun? FRED FREEMAN
Perhaps Fred Freeman could point to me the genetic or factual evidence that Scots minds are better than others? To hark back to ancient history, what does one say of the great civilisation of China or Moghals? The wording our folk make many people nervous, as it implies there are 'other' folk, separate but equal of course I would dissent from the view that adversity brings out character. Perhaps the killings that happen in societies with challenge (Rawanda, Syria, Palestine) suggest that responses other than 'team work' can emerge. Perhaps these other folk lack our creative skills? Who are ourselves?

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments