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Scottish independence places UK higher education at risk

Posted by Tom Walker in

With the 18th September 2014 Scottish referendum on independence looming, the debate between pro-separatists and Westminster continues to intensify, with quibbles over the timing of the next TV debate on the independence of Scotland, in which Mr Salmond was set to spar with Alistair Darling, reaching a climax last night. One bone of contention in the debate around independence is the consequences of an independent Scotland for the UK's higher education system, and specifically the impact on the sustainability of Scotland's provision of free university education to Scottish students at Scottish institutions.

In the instance that Scotland gains independence, EU law would require Scotland to offer equal access to its universities. If Scotland gain independence and joined the EU (something Alex Salmond has stated his intent on securing) this would either result in the demise of one of Mr Salmond's flagship education policies or it would require that the Scottish government foot the bill for all european students studying at a scottish institution. Whilst it is currently the case that only around 4,800 non-Scottish UK students attend Scottish universities, it is estimated that those numbers would soar to 20,000 UK students if tuition fees for rUK (rest of the UK) students studying in Scotland were scrapped; this could result in a cost to the Scottish taxpayer in the order of £150m, and if English universities charge even higher fees, migration of rUK students north of the Scottish boarder could well swell further.

Additionally, according to a report on the impact of separation on higher education, research and tuition fees by the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee, Scottish universities currently benefit from over 50% more in research grants from the UK Research Councils than they would otherwise receive if allocation of funding was determined by population (a point supported by Scottish government figures, who note that Scotland has 8.3% of the population, but gets 10.7% of research funding). This, coupled with a fee-driven migration of rUK students, could well place an intolerable strain on Scottish coffers.

The report on higher education by the Scottish Affairs Committee also cited a potentially detrimental impact to the UK's prominence in global university league tables and research communities. The UK currently boasts 31 institutions in the world's top 200 universities, with five (16 per cent of the UK's representation), located in Scotland. Further to this, the UK is currently ranked second in terms of world-class research, and the UK's share of the world's top 1% most cited publications is on an upward trend. Both these facts attract significant foreign direct investment in addition to financial benefits from education tourism.

Whether Mr Salmond is championing independence for his own political credentials, or whether he is pursuing a separation with the benefits to Scotland at heart will no doubt be quarrelled over for years to come. However, a review of the higher education policies and strategies that Mr Salmond's government are citing to support their impetus for independence does suggest that most points are underpinned by mere speculation on the outcome of a legal debate in the courts. The stakes at risk seem rather too high for a gamble"¦

Image courtesy of Flickr, Creative Commons