Edinburgh University. Photo: Flickr/[Duncan]
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What would the future hold for Scottish higher education in an independent Scotland?

STEM academics are planning to vote No in today's referendum over concerns that they will lose a significant amount of UK-wide research funding.

In a Times Higher Education poll carried out last month, more than 1,000 academics and administrators from a range of top Scottish universities were asked whether Scottish universities should welcome independence.

The majority of them – 55 per cent – said Scotland should remain in the UK, while only 30 per cent disagreed. The remaining 15 per cent were uncertain or indifferent.

Opinion was divided by discipline, with the majority of Scottish academics in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects planning to vote No in today's referendum. They cited their concern that they will lose a significant amount of UK-wide research funding. Arts and humanities academics, on the other hand, appear to be more pro-independence. This division isn’t surprising: STEM students rely more heavily on funding and grants from UK-wide research councils than those in the arts and humanities

At present, researchers within the UK are able to take advantage of access to world leading facilities, and benefit from their membership of over two hundred international centres, in everything from advanced computing and large longitudinal data sets to the work of the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN).

Last year Scotland secured more than £250m of the UK Research Council’s grants. This represents around a sixth of all its funding - a substantial amount given Scotland accounts for just 8 per cent of the UK population’s and GDP. 

Alongside public funding, Scotland also receives much financial support from charities. In 2011 roughly 14 per cent of funding raised by members of the Association of Medical Research Charities was spent north of the border. 

If Scotland does become an independent country, UK national funding agencies are likely to prioritise funding for the rest of the UK. Research collaborations would be viewed as “international collaborations” and receive grants from a much smaller international funding pot. There is much uncertainty over whether an independent Scotland would be able to make use of the perks they currently enjoy as part of the UK. As Sharon Mudie of the University of Dundee’s College of Life Sciences put it in the THE report: 

We rely on UK charitable donations to carry out our research. We have been given no idea of how an independent Scotland would maintain this level of funding as most of the current funding would be lost if we leave the UK.”

Similarly, a letter written collectively by the presidents of the Royal Society, the British Academy, and the Academy of Medical Sciences argued:

We believe that if separation were to occur, research not only in Scotland but also in the rest of the UK would suffer. However, research in Scotland would be more vulnerable and there could be significant reductions in range, capability and critical mass."

Scotland would have to make up for the loss in funding somehow, and it is unclear where the additional money would come from. Would Scottish students continue to attend university for free? With five universities in the world’s top 200, and with a share of the world’s top 1 per cent publications, Scotland is thriving as a key part of the current UK-wide system. Would Scotland’s success continue?

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.