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18 September 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:44am

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.

By Fiona Rutherford

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. 

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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. 

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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?