Robert the Bruce at Stirling Castle. Photograph: Martin Leveneur (CC BY-ND 2.0)
At the rate we’re going, this week might well be the last week of the UK as we know it. At a time when we can’t help but remember that the BBC is definitely biased and deeply pro-union, for the most part, universities in Scotland are too.
The Times Higher Education conducted a survey between 7th-26th August and found that 55.5% of staff felt that remaining in the UK was a better outcome for Scottish universities, while 30.2% thought otherwise. In this way, he survey also suggests that the majority of staff at Scottish universities are intending to vote “no”.
James Naismith, Bishop Wardlaw professor of chemical biology at the University of St Andrews sums up academics' overall feeling nicely with the statement that, even under the most optimistic circumstances, independence will harm universities.
There are a number of major reasons why they believe independence would be harmful. Firstly, Scotland wins a far greater share of research council funding than their 8.4% of the UK population, and other sources such as the Wellcome Trust would also be inclined to cut their awards or amend their grant awarding policies. It has been suggested that an independent Scottish government would have to increase its spend on research grants by 25%-50% just to maintain current levels.
The Scottish education secretary says that university research funding would be maintained in an independent Scotland, and the Yes campaign has stated that Scotland would still be able to share these funding sources in some new bureaucratic structure, discarding parts of the UK they don’t like, keeping others they do. However, this is highly unrealistic. Why would funders choose to give grants to scientists in a different country who's citizens are neither giving money to the funders, nor letting the rest of the UK benefit from their research.
Secondly, independence would damage the collaboration between researchers in Scotland and those elsewhere in the UK. Prof David Weller, director of the Centre for Population Health Sciences at the University of Edinburgh states that 80% of his work is in collaboration with other UK researchers and cancer charities, and that is Scotland were to become a separate country there is no way that this could be maintained. Some have even suggested that it would become increasingly attractive for leading researchers to locate themselves, and even whole research groups, south of the new border. In this way there's a fear that there will be an outflow of academic talent from Scotland which will lead to the inability to share data and resources. It has already been revealed that a number of senior research scientists have already been approached by leading English universities because of the referendum, while some candidates are delaying taking up Scottish posts until after the vote. In a similar vein, the moralistic side of scientists also believe that science is a global endeavour, that it should break down borders rather than build them up, and independence would be a step backwards in this sense.
Thirdly, research is not always straightforward path with intellectual activities being risky; pay-offs for society often appear in the future or via a circuitous route across disciplines. As a smaller country, would Scotland be able support as broad and as creative an academic community as the rest of the UK? The size of the UK science base provides the space for the creativity needed for ground-breaking discoveries while the breadth also allows intellectual dissent. A smaller funding agency in Scotland would perhaps not be able to take the same risks.
A non-academic issue is also that of tution fees. If tuition were free in Scotland, the Scottish government figures suggest that there may between 20,000 and 90,000 students from the rest of the UK that would move to Scotland to take advantage of this free education. This would then mean that places for Scots-domiciled students would have to reduce dramatically, or they would have to abolish their idea of free education for Scottish students, which many on both sides of the fence believe is a vital benefit for the young people of Scotland.
There is also still the fact that Scottish universities will not be able to charge the rest of the UK tuition fees, as they do currently. If they do continue tuition fees for the rest of the UK, the policy would almost certainly face a challenge under European law, which could take years to resolve.
The "yes" camp.
However, we must not forget that there are academics that are choosing to vote "yes". When asked, the "yes" vote seemed to be a matter of the heart rather than the head, with reasons revolving around the benefits it would give Scottish society as a whole, rather than just the scientific, academic community. There were even a handful in the university community surveyed who stated that they would be voting "yes", however they believed that Scottish universities would be better off if they stayed in the union! Those voting "yes" also wanted to escape what they see as undesirable, market-driven higher education culture emanating from England.
Interestingly, those working the science, technology, engineering, maths and clinical disciplines are much more likely to vote to remain in the UK (69.4%) compared with those working in the arts, humanities, social sciences and modern foreign languages (43.9%). This is perhaps because scientists and engineers have greater need of outside grants to fund their lab research than those in the humanities and are therefore nervous about losing access to UK-wide research councils.
Furthermore, those who work in the arts, humanities and social sciences are very conscious of location, and working with culture and society may create a stronger sense of identity which may result in their “yes” vote. Humanities and social science research doesn’t have quite the same borderless sense as science.
It is also interesting to look at the voting patterns of the universities in general. The University of Glasgow is most staunchly in favour of independence with 60.7% intending to vote “yes” while the University of Dundee is primarily pro-union with 23.4% intending to vote “no”. This figure may perhaps be, in part, to the number (percentage) of STEM and clinical staff based at the University of Dundee.