Scotland’s universities would lose their lucrative place in the UK’s research framework if the country voted for independence, experts have warned, ahead of a conference on the subject this week.
The warning comes amid growing debate about how a “yes” vote in next year’s referendum might affect the Scottish academy and follows last week’s launch of an inquiry into the subject by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee of MPs.
At the moment, Scottish universities compete with other UK institutions for research council grants and do disproportionately well.
Scotland’s population constituted 8.4 per cent of the UK total in 2010, Office for National Statistics data show, but its universities won 14.7 per cent of research council money in 2009-10, according to the Higher Education Policy Institute.
David Bell, professor of economics at the University of Stirling, said he would be surprised if the UK allowed Scotland to continue to win more grant funding than it put in post-independence.
“I can’t believe that would go unnoticed,” he said.
Alan Trench, honorary senior research fellow at University College London’s Constitution Unit, said that it would be difficult to continue the current arrangement if the union were broken up, so Scotland would probably have to set up its own research councils.
“Scotland does disproportionately well out of research spending. It’s quite hard to see how or why the UK [would have] an interest in paying a subsidy to Scotland,” he said.
In addition, “the purpose of the UK research councils is to serve the interests of the UK”, Dr Trench said, and these would likely differ from those of an independent Scotland.
Professor Bell argued that it would not be “beyond the wit of man” to devise a system where a united research council system continued, but only if Scottish universities get no more out of it than the Edinburgh government puts in.
This would make cross-border collaboration easier, he said, but Scottish universities would still lose their financial advantage.
Such a system might have to “cream off” the best proposals from Scotland, possibly to the detriment of the country’s less research-intensive universities, he added.
Professor Bell was due to deliver a paper on the implications of independence for the Scottish academy on 22 May at a conference at the University of Edinburgh called Higher Education, the Devolution Settlement and the Referendum on Independence: The Future Funding of Higher Education in the UK and Europe.
Part of an Economic and Social Research Council-funded project, the conference was the first in a series of events examining the subject.
A spokeswoman for the Scottish government said that it was working to “ensure continuity of research funding” in an independent Scotland and would set out detailed plans on the subject within the year.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said it would not be possible to negotiate the terms of independence before the vote takes place.
Prepare to repel boarders: how Holyrood could deter English students in search of free tuition
Another major conundrum for the Scottish government in the event of independence would be how to prevent English students flooding north to take advantage of the country’s tuition fee-free universities and squeezing out their Scottish peers.
Currently, students from the rest of the UK can be charged up to £9,000 a year while Scots go for free because European Union rules allow different treatment of citizens within (but not between) member states.
But this would probably be illegal if Scotland and the UK became separate EU member states, although with legal opinion divided over whether Scotland would automatically become an EU member - and with a referendum promised on the UK’s continued membership - such a situation is far from inevitable.
Alan Trench, honorary senior research fellow at University College London’s Constitution Unit, said that it could be possible for Scotland to introduce a “non-residence tuition fee” to deter English students.
But according to Sheila Riddell, professor of inclusion and diversity at the University of Edinburgh, the EU “wouldn’t be happy” unless such a fee were set at a “small administrative level”.
Another option would be to adapt the “Welsh approach”, said David Bell, professor of economics at the University of Stirling.
Under this model, Scottish universities would charge all students tuition fees, but Scots would be reimbursed by the Holyrood government.
Such a policy could be open to challenge in the EU courts, he added, but has shown no sign of legally unravelling in Wales thus far.
Independence could also allow Scotland to scrap the “inhibiting” rules on international student visas brought in by the coalition, said David Raffe, professor of sociology of education at Edinburgh.
“There would be a desire in an independent Scotland for a more relaxed immigration policy” to boost university income and inject fresh blood into the country’s ageing population, he said.