With only 8 months until the Scottish referendum, we look at how Scotland’s vision for higher education will work if granted independence.

The SNP’s White Paper, released in November of last year, is less of a manifesto, and perhaps controversially, more of a campaign document: the government can never be sure of what they can ultimately deliver so it offers more of a vision - a best case scenario - than a reality.

Their vision includes a welfare system founded on different principles, with more confidence in the state. Examples of this include keeping the NHS in public hands and returning the Royal Mail to Westminster; an abolition of the “bedroom tax” and a halt to Universal Credit; and triple locking pensioners’ incomes.

At the same time, they are rather silent on issues that may affect much of the population and that will influence people’s decision to vote. For example, they offer tax cuts, but at some point will also need to raise money through tax. How are they going to achieve this? It is thought that they might increase council tax, currently frozen, which would impact almost everyone. They, also, boldly assume ways in which they can increase tax revenue with little evidence, for example, they are offering free childcare, but they take for granted that the money will be recouped with more women in the labour market.

My guess is that, if people vote for independence, their main argument will be that Scotland can be controlled under the government it votes for: Scotland is heartily Labour, yet the British Government is not, with elected representatives from Scotland making up just 9% of the 650 members of the House of Commons. In this way, decisions about Scotland will be taken by the people who care most: the people who live and work in the country. The UK is a democratic country, yet often Scotland has no voice.

However, the Scottish Government is making it clear that they don’t, as yet, have all the answers, - for example, should they keep the pound? - but will make arrangements to do everything in the country’s interests. A major problem with this argument is that it will have to engage with the rest of the UK in making their decision, and will not necessarily win arguments. In this way, they might not be able to get out of situations they can’t agree with, yet have no plan B, no alternatives.

What does the SNP have to say about higher education in an independent Scotland and what challenges would they face? Firstly, it is interesting to note that the White Paper seems to go out of its way to comply, and even nurture, the views of vice-chancellors and other players in Scottish higher education. It proposes that university tuition remains free for Scottish students; that Scotland continues to work with British funding organisations; and that they continue to have access to the highly integrated and interdependent UK research system. 

However, Academics Together, a network of experts from a range of academic fields from across Scotland who believe that Scotland’s researchers and universities benefit from being part of the UK, released a rebuttal last week for the SNP’s White Paper with regards to higher education. Here we look at how the higher education system currently operates, and question whether it can remain under an independent Scotland.

Academics Together clarify that as part of the UK, Scotland performs better than any other comparable European country and better than many larger countries, for example, they have 5 universities in the world’s top 200, more per head of population than any other country. Their universities are a major industry in their own right contributing £6.7 billion to the Scottish economy and employing 142,000 people.

Currently Scotland has unrestricted access to an extensive, highly integrated, and thriving research base. Research activity is supported by government through the UK Research Councils and UK Government departments while the UK’s network of charitable organisations funds significant amounts of further research, as do private sector businesses. The work itself is carried out using a network of UK facilities to which Scotland has free access. The global reach and influence of the UK provides the opportunity to locate and supply facilities where scientific expertise and interest is greatest. Often facilities are in Scotland but Scottish scientists can take advantage of the investment wherever it is located in the UK. Scotland’s scientists are an integral part of the UK’s research community working with colleagues across the UK, not just to attract funds and investment, but as teams wherever the expertise lies.

The White Paper states its intention to remain part of the UK research system after independence while, also, asserting that the position of UK charities, which provide significant investment in research, would be unaffected by this irreversible change. However, will post-independence funding for Scottish universities would be adequate to maintain their high international standing? The White Paper proposes a funding model for research in an independent Scotland which would be based on continuing membership of UK Research Councils. Tax contributions to UK Research Councils would be made in proportion to size of population, although rewards, as at present, would depend on excellence in research. Scottish academics would receive grants for specific research, as well as continuing to use UK research infrastructure. 

Firstly, explicit in the White Paper is the assumption that the rest of the UK would consider it advantageous to continue to be part of the present system, indeed some Scottish vice-chancellors believe that research in Scotland is so good, that the UK would not want to lose it. However, it’s hard to imagine a situation where the rest of the UK would continue to allow a net outflow of scarce research funding to what would be a foreign country, while some universities in the rest of the UK might welcome not having the competition from Scotland. 

Secondly, if the UK and Scotland’s social and economic priorities diverge, would it not be better to have a new Scottish Research Council? Scotland wouldn’t want to continue to send money back down to London, while it can also focus on where to spend its money. There is currently no funding for some research that would aid Scotland, such as tourism, and oil and gas.

Furthermore, there is no contingency plan if an acceptable agreement cannot be reached. With all the good will in the world, a shared system would be difficult to maintain. 

Lastly, the White Paper intends to continue the present funding systems for Scottish students, pledging to “protect free tuition fees for Scottish students”. This is believed to be a popular policy - and it most probably is - however, the pledge is made despite no detailed costings or acknowledgement in the White Paper of the severely constrained fiscal context in which an independent Scotland would find itself. The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculate that, even under the most optimistic scenario, an independent Scotland would face a gap between tax income and spending more than twice as large as the rest of the UK. The report suggests that between £3-10 billion of cuts or tax increases would be required to get our finances on a sustainable path: this would require either an 8% cut in public services, a 9% increase in the basic rate of income tax, or a combination of the two. 

The Scottish Government asserts that charging fees to students from the rest of the UK will be maintained, while for the rest of the EU fees will be free. However, this policy would run into significant problems within European law, specifically the Bologna Agreement. At the moment, European law requires that students from other EU member states are treated in the same way as Scottish students. They cannot be discriminated against because of their nationality. As a result, students from other European countries cannot be charged fees. Scotland, therefore, educates students from all EU countries for free. The only exceptions are those from England, Wales and NI as they are not from another EU country, but part of the UK. Here the rules are different and fees can be charged. If Scotland leaves the UK and joins the EU as a separate state, the rest of the UK will become like any other EU country. As a result, Scotland will be legally obliged to provide university education free to UK students. With the same numbers as today, this would represent a loss of income to Scottish universities of £150 million - this then raises the question of affordability of free tuition for Scottish domiciled students. 

Scotland can ringfence some degrees as a public investment, such as medicine and teaching, however they will be hard pressed to ringfence all subjects under this umbrella. Another option would be to ask Scottish students to pay, but at the same time provide bursaries, so effectively, students wouldn't have to pay. Ironically, the only way to ensure that Scottish education remains free, is to not create an independent Scotland. 

Conclusively, although there are many who may want an independent Scotland, for a multitude of reasons, the best-case scenario for higher education is a no vote.