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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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com