State of the Debate: Higher Education

Published: 9 September 2014

It’s safe to assume that HE policies in the rest of the UK will continue to have an impact on the future of HE in Scotland, whatever the outcome next week. Sarah Minty of CREID discusses.

As we reach the final days of the referendum campaign, amid what is looking like an increasingly close result, it’s interesting to consider what role the future of higher education has played in the debate. Arguments about the legality of continuing to charge rUK students for tuition in an independent Scotland and whether it could retain the level of research council funding it currently receives have never been far away. They were brought to the fore again last week in a number of articles in the Guardian, while much of the discussion between Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Labour MP Jim Murphy in the BBC televised debate of 3 September also focused on these issues.

The majority of the Guardian articles focus on concerns that independence will have a detrimental impact on Scottish universities (Scottish universities braced for brain drain if country votes for independence, 31 Aug; Medical research would be 'eroded and lost' by Scottish independence, 1 Sep; Scottish independence could threaten free tuition for its students, 2 Sep). In response, Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University and chair of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland, also wrote for the Guardian, urging people to Ignore scare-mongering: independent Scotland will attract top researchers (2 Sep).

Our research, involving interviews with 50 stakeholders in Scotland, the UK and further afield, also found that the future of research funding was of greatest concern to university managers and senior academics in Scotland who felt that maintaining a single research area would be critical. Respondents were generally uncomfortable with the policy of charging rUK students fees but conceded that it was necessary given the fee differential with England; this was the case even among the young people we spoke to in England. Writing for The Conversation (11 Aug), von Prondzynski suggests that overlooked issues such as staff and student migration are also important. Indeed, in our research with stakeholders across Scotland and the rest of the UK, current UK immigration rules were perceived to be unhelpful. Interviewees argued for changes to post-study work visas; something which the White Paper also points to.

Another often neglected issue is the role of the Scottish colleges in delivering higher education through providing alternative routes of access via HND/C and articulation from college to university – a distinctive feature of the Scottish HE system. While Academics for Yes and Academics Together have been quite vocal in the campaigns we have heard little as to how the outcome of the referendum may impact colleges and their staff. It should of course be borne in mind that the college sector has already experienced many changes as a result of the 2013 Post-16 Act. It’s not clear from the White Paper what, if any, changes might be planned for the sector in an independent Scotland. 

Free tuition is often used as evidence of a more socially just approach, with England contrastingly characterized as having created extra barriers to entry with high fees. Many of the young people we spoke to in Scotland stated that young people from poorer backgrounds are more likely to go to university in Scotland than in England as a result. There is a difference between rhetoric and reality, however, as neither country has made great progress with regard to widening participation (see Lindsay Paterson’s recent blog). The extent to which Scottish HE is actually more inclusive is questionable, particularly given research which shows that the poorest students take on disproportionate levels of debt.

In the BBC programme, and elsewhere across the debate, there has been the assumption that free HE might somehow be a deal breaker for 16 and 18 year olds voting for the first time. In our research with young people in Scotland (121 young people, most of whom were planning to go to university or college), we found that while the majority supported free tuition for all, the policy did not tend to determine their vote. Instead, issues about the economy more widely, the currency and EU membership were considered to be of greater importance. Many young people also worried that free tuition may not be sustainable in an independent Scotland, particularly with increasing numbers of young people attending university.

Tuition fees are in a state of flux across the UK. The Welsh Government is currently reviewing student funding, while in England, where questions are being asked about RAB charges, the future of funding may largely depend on who wins the next election, with the Conservatives possibly moving towards increases in fees, and the Labour Party hinting that they will reduce them. Whatever the outcome next week, it’s safe to assume that HE policies in the rest of the UK will continue to have an impact on the future of higher education in Scotland.

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