White paper reflections - Higher Education

by Sheila Riddell, ESRC Fellow and Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity, University of Edinburgh

The Scottish Government’s  White Paper on Scotland’s future, published on 26th November 2013, includes a chapter on education, skills and employment, and has a particular focus on the university sector. The paper notes that ‘the university sector is one of the main drivers of the Scottish economy’, contributing to the economic, social and cultural welfare of the nation. Free access to under-graduate higher education for Scottish-domiciled students is identified as one of the Scottish Government’s flagship policies, and there is a clear commitment that, if the SNP remains in power, this policy will continue in the event of a vote for independence. It is argued that ‘free education for all those able to benefit is a core part of Scotland’s educational tradition and the values that underpin our education system’. However,  as in the rest of the UK, social inequality in HE access, reflecting wider social divisions, is a clear feature of the Scottish system and this is not discussed in the White Paper.

Currently, undergraduate students from the rest of the UK (rUK) are charged fees of up to £9,000 per annum if they study in Scotland. The White Paper states the Scottish Government’s belief that, post-independence, it would be able to continue to charge students from other parts of the UK. Students from the rest of the EU, by way of contrast, would continue to study free of charge in Scotland, in line with the Bologna principle of promoting cross-border student mobility. The White Paper argues that, if rUK students were treated in the same way as students from other parts of the EU, there would be a danger that Scottish students would be squeezed out, since there would be a ‘huge incentive’ for rUK students to study in Scotland. In addition, there would be a loss of revenue to Scottish universities, which are already concerned about the emergence of a funding gap between Scottish and English institutions. This is an area where there are ongoing debates, with experts in European law believing that the EU would be unlikely to allow an independent Scotland to charge fees to rUK students, when home students are studying for free.

The White Paper also addresses the funding of research in Scottish universities post-independence.  Endorsing the position of Universities UK, the Scottish Government states that it would wish to remain part of a UK common research area, ensuring no barriers to collaborative research, access to facilities and peer review for researchers throughout the UK. This, it is suggested, is in the interests of both Scotland and the rest of the UK. The Government proposes that it would contribute to the funding of the UK Research Councils, based on population share. This scenario is contested within a recent paper on science and research produced by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills as part of its Scotland analysis series. This paper notes that Scotland currently does rather well with regard to funding from the UK research councils.  In 2012-13, for example, Scotland gained 10.7% of UK research council funding, against 8.4% of population. The Department for Business Innovation and Skills paper suggests that there would be no guarantee that Scotland would continue to be part of a UK funding area post-independence, because national governments fund national research programmes. Reflecting different economic and social priorities, the Scottish Government would almost certainly wish to develop a distinctive research agenda, making it very difficult to agree a joint research programme and funding share. The Department for Business Innovation and Skills paper also suggests that significant difficulties would emerge with regard to the funding of research by UK charities post-independence. Scottish universities currently get about 15% of their total research income from charities, most of which are UK based. The UK Government believes that, post-independence, most UK charities would wish to concentrate funding within their own territory, and Scotland would have to look to Scottish charitable sources, leading to fragmentation and duplication.

With regard to the future of universities, it is evident that there are marked contrasts between the Scottish and UK Governments with regard to the future scenarios which they envisage.  Clearly, it is impossible for anyone to know how this would work out in practice, since much would depend on post-referendum negotiations between the two governments and with the EU. Many people are likely to base their voting decision in the referendum on issues other than higher education, such as the economy. However, it is interesting to note that many of the issues arising in the context of higher education reflect wider policy concerns, and centre on the relationship between Scotland, the UK, Europe and other nations.

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Sheila Riddell's picture
post by Sheila Riddell
University of Edinburgh
27th November 2013
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