Taking Education Higher: The Bright Prospects for Research in an Independent Scotland

Among the many Westminster cabinet ministers parachuted in for an afternoon hectoring the Scottish public before running away back to Westminster, was David Willetts. As Universities Minister, his job was to declare that the end of university education was nigh in an independent Scotland, as – clearly – anything good that we had possibly achieved in this sector could only possibly have come with the Union.

This is a somewhat hard argument to support, as Scotland regularly seems to have achieved more through its own initiatives than its comparators in the rUK. Research has shown that, even going back to the earliest decades within the Union, Scotland’s remarkable historically important role in the global development of the modern world was due to its culturally-distinct emphasis on education: the parish schools (under the auspices of the church in Scotland) had achieved 75% male literacy in Lowland Scotland (significantly higher than the 50% figure south of the border). This facilitated the spread southwards of the Enlightenment from the University of Glasgow, with the core texts of Frances Hutcheson, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and David Hume subsequently reaching America and forming a basis (along with the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath) in the founding documents of that nation. What is even more surprising is that Scotland still seems to have that leading edge, the Office for National Statistics recently showing that Scotland’s figure of 45% of those between 25 and 64 having gone into higher education, makes it the best educated country in Europe, and close to the highest in the world (The Independent, 6/6/2014). So we are similarly well-placed again.

Because Scottish education has always been separate within the Union, the majority of higher education policy is already set in Scotland. This is not only reflected in the Scottish Government’s philosophical opposition to tuition fees and the subsequent debt that students shoulder (one estimate is £53,000 of debt per student in England compared to just £2,025 in Scotland), but also appears to have reaped parallel dividends, with Scottish universities fairing better than their rUK counterparts in a number of areas: firstly, Scotland has diverged from the rUK’s policy of under-investing in higher education (the rUK falling behind global investment trends), particularly with the rUK’s real-term cuts in the science budget. Professor Paul Whiteley (LSE) noted: “Britain under-invests in higher education in general and since it plays a key role in stimulating growth, this is a very unwise policy in the long run”, and UNESCO’s Education at a Glance 2012 shows that the UK invests less in Higher Education than medium-sized independent countries such as the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Scotland’s stronger research and education base thus means that it has five universities in the top 200 in the world, the most per head of the population anywhere (England would need 50 to boast the same level of success). Similarly, in 2007, Professor Anne Glover, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission was able to demonstrate that the research impact of the scientific work done in Scotland, relative to GDP, was second to none in the world, noting that “good science done in Scotland is of value to everyone in the world, not just Scotland”. And it is that international relevance of Scotland’s research that will determine our future research significance – not being administered by Westminster’s opposing educational philosophy.

While having full control over research funding in Scotland would be an opportunity to improve on the current system with a consistent approach, many of my research colleagues understandably have concerns that independence might in some way compromise – rather than expand – Scotland’s access to research funding. Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth: such claims have been contradicted by Sir Michael Atiyah (former president of both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh), as well as the UK Research Council, which notes that “Through the RCUK International Strategy, we outline the ways in which RCUK helps the best researchers work together, wherever they are in the world. We recognise that research is critical to solving grand challenges, and that increasingly the solutions will require work across boundaries, crossing disciplines, and borders between nations.” Furthermore, Sir Ian Diamond, former chairman of the Research Council executive group (currently Principal of Aberdeen University), noted that there was “no question” that Scottish universities would continue their relationships with the current research councils: “I can’t see it’s in the interests of anyone in the rest of the UK to want to exclude Scotland, nor is it in the interest of Scotland to be excluded from collaboration. You need to freely and easily be able to collaborate across the UK. Knowledge does not know state boundaries. It seems to me it could be done fairly straightforwardly.” This is hardly unprecedented, with the Research Councils having many existing relationships with other countries (including Ireland). Universities Scotland concur, noting that it was in everyone’s interests “that this important and vigorous cross-border collaboration is supported to continue, whatever the result of the constitutional referendum.”

Access to European funding has further dimensions: on the one hand, the EU Horizon Project (aimed at expanding research cooperation across the EU) as well as access through the European Research Area funding has been assured by Professor Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission. In contrast, the greater danger and risk comes from the potential withdrawal of the UK from the EU in three years time, which would come with a guaranteed cost to our university research base.

Higher education both in terms of quality graduates and quality research is a key strength for an independent Scotland to build upon, and it would indeed be astonishing if Scotland were to turn its back on such a defining character of the nation after a ‘Yes’ vote. If the level of education is what defines the limitations of a society, and it can be guided by its social democratic values, then one can be confident not only in the ability of Scotland’s people to build a future, but also the shape and character that the society in that future will have.


“in 2007, [we were] able to demonstrate that by independent analysis, relative to GDP, the impact of science done in Scotland was number one in the world. That is just mind blowing.” (Professor Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s