Charlie Jeffery assesses the impact of political changes on Scottish universities' future access to funding
May's elections raised more questions than answers about the future of higher education in Scotland. The refusal of the Liberal Democrats to go into coalition with the Scottish National Party means Alex Salmond can count only on conditional support from the Greens in the new Parliament. That adds up to 49 seats, while a bare majority needs 65. How long Mr Salmond can run a minority administration is unclear. A no-confidence vote could bring new elections at any time, though the Opposition is likely to leave the SNP in power for a while. Moving too early could boost the party's support if voters felt it had not been given a fair crack of the whip.
So the SNP will likely be in the saddle for some time. Like all the other main parties in Scotland, it sees the higher education sector as one of the country's biggest assets. It hails the global competitiveness of Scotland's universities and the importance they have for the national economy. It sees higher education as vital for feeding the success of key growth sectors - finance, life sciences, renewables - through research and development and commercial spin-offs and for widening access and equipping graduates with the right skillsets for the knowledge economy.
So far, so good. Higher education in Scotland is so much apple pie and motherhood; it is difficult to be against it. Indeed, it could be an area in which a minority administration could garner cross-party support. But there are two sets of concerns about how the new administration can build on the sector's success.
Scotland's first landmark divergence from Westminster after devolution was on tuition fees. Upfront annual fees - which many English universities would now like to see increased - were abolished by the Scottish Parliament. Instead, a "graduate endowment" was introduced, in essence a deferred one-off payment levied after completion of a degree, and set at £2,289 for 2006-07 entrants.
The arithmetic is simple enough. The endowment already brings in far less money per student for Scottish universities than fees do for English universities. But the SNP is committed to going further. It has pledged to abolish the endowment. There may be sound arguments for doing so, and the pros and cons have been rehearsed in these pages often enough. But what is left is a question about how the income shortfall of Scottish versus English universities will be made up. Most commentators agree that the spending commitments in the SNP manifesto were generous, but that the detail on how they would be financed was scant. Higher education was no exception.
The question of funding matters all the more because of the second set of concerns: how will the new SNP Government affect the interdependency of Scottish higher education with that of the rest of the UK. Scottish universities may have global reputations and ambitions, but in key respects are locked into a UK market - in particular for undergraduate students, but also for research council income. If they lack equivalence of income with English counterparts because of different views on fees, they may in future be disadvantaged in other areas, such as competitiveness in winning research funds.
Scottish institutions currently do well in competition for research council grants. If they are to continue to do so - with all the economic benefits that leading-edge research brings - they need to be on a level playing field with their English counterparts. The SNP's commitments here look especially thin. Its manifesto promised a modest infusion of cash for top research (£10 million) and additional, uncosted initiatives in renewables and life-sciences research. But nowhere has it set out a comprehensive strategy on university funding that might match the scale of educational and economic ambitions it places on the sector.
This was a theme raised implicitly in The Times Higher by a number of prominent scientists who are based in Scotland and who fear the impact that the SNP's policy on Scottish independence could have on the country's research capacities. It is now unlikely that we will see even a preparatory referendum on independence, given the clear anti-referendum majority in the new Scottish Parliament. But the core point raised by the scientists remains. Even under an SNP Government, Scotland will continue to be deeply entwined with its neighbour to the south. How will its successful but small higher education sector maximise its achievements, both competing and collaborating with that of England?
Charlie Jeffery is professor of politics at Edinburgh University and director of the Economic and Social Research Council's research programme on devolution and constitutional change.