Could Scottish Universities Flourish in an Independent Scotland?

Professor Jill Stephenson looks at the challenges that universities face if there is a Yes vote on 18th September 2014.

Having been associated with one of the Scottish universities for over fifty years, I am exercised by the effect that ‘independence’ would have on Scotland’s universities. Scottish universities have a very strong record in attracting research funds, winning 13% of all research funds allocated to British universities in recent years. This is impressive, given that Scotland’s share of the UK population is 8.4%. It is true that there are disproportionately more academic researchers in

Scotland than in the rest of the UK, but it is nevertheless a matter of considerable pride that they are so successful in this very competitive area.

Some of this money comes from charities that are outside Scotland. A fair proportion comes from the UK research councils, who use a system of peer review for and can draw on a wide circle of referees for this purpose. Could an independent Scotland expect London-based research councils to continue to disburse some of their funds – which come from the London government – to Scottish universities? I doubt it very much. Yet both staff and postgraduate students have depended for decades on these funds, which are awarded competitively, for the pursuit of their research. A Scottish research council would have far less in the way of funds, and the system of peer review for disbursement would involve a narrow circle of referees. Why would we want an inferior system to the one that currently obtains?

Beyond that, I have heard a distinguished professor explain that subscriptions to international research facilities, such as CERN, are very expensive indeed and cannot be afforded by small countries. Smaller countries, he said, have to form consortia to be able to afford membership for their universities and research institutes. But we are already in a consortium, the United Kingdom. Why break it up?

I am further concerned about the kind of pressure that Scottish universities might be under if ‘independence’ were achieved. Alf Baird, a professor at Napier university has complained (Scottish Review, 14.02.13)  that Scottish universities are not Scottish enough. Too many of their leaders and senior staff are not themselves Scottish, he says, as if being Scottish were the best qualification for appointment to chairs in a wide variety of academic subjects. People doing research in Scotland, he says, should have a ‘Scotland agenda’ – because currently researchers in universities don’t focus their research on alleviating child poverty, fuel poverty, etc., in Scotland. No, of course they don’t. Universities are not political interest groups and should not be narrow Nationalist training colleges but rather institutions where intellectuals push forward the frontiers of knowledge across a large range of disciplines.

If they had been working in universities with a ‘Scotland agenda’, would professors Higgs, Wilmut and Pennington have achieved the remarkable feats in their research in Scottish universities that have brought them international renown? Genuine research knows no international barriers. Yet Alf Baird’s view is that: ‘With much of the research at Scotland’s universities nowadays undertaken by academics coming from countries outside Scotland, they might be forgiven for not bringing with them a personal priority or interest to research matters that are of importance to Scotland. Hence, much of what passes for research in Scotland today is not always of relevance to Scotland or its people. Existing research and teaching at Scotland’s universities may very well be described as “world class”, but it is clearly not providing the solutions needed to help overcome Scotland’s continuing, deep-rooted problems.’ Baird’s solution is that: ‘Scots need to seriously consider the role our universities play in today’s society, and in the future. That role should primarily be to educate the people living in Scotland, to help develop and grow Scotland’s economy, and to better Scotland’s society’.

This, I readily admit, is one man’s view. But how many Scottish Nationalists would agree with him? I worry that this is the kind of agenda that a separatist Scotland would embrace, turning our great universities into parochial training colleges with a ‘Scotland agenda’ that would stifle genuinely original inspiration, research and innovation. We should keep Scotland’s universities as outward-looking and, yes, cosmopolitan institutions, and we have a much better chance of doing that if we keep Scotland within the United Kingdom.