Economics of Independence Westminster Mismanagement

Protecting and improving education in an independent Scotland

Written by Eric McLean

students_2357903bEvidence suggests there is increasing inequality and poverty in the UK. This is significant for many areas of public life, but especially educational attainment.  Scotland has an increasing attainment gap (persistent disparity in academic performance or educational attainment between different socio-economic groups of students). By its very nature, it’s due to poverty and inequality, not education policy or practice. Scotland’s has excellent teachers and teacher training.

What is the purpose of education?

In almost any society, the generally accepted purpose of education is to provide people with the opportunity to develop competencies that allow them to contribute to society in productive ways.

Of course, there are other definitions of raison d’être for education, often hotly debated. These include the strengthening of democracy and social justice; developing national and collective competencies; producing a learning society; and to teach the rights and responsibilities of democratic citizenship.

But regardless of the definition, there is no doubt that today’s education contributes to what our collective future will look like. Tomorrow’s society and culture will be shaped by today’s education, whether that is primary, secondary, tertiary or higher education.  And if education shapes our future, then our vision of Scotland’s future has to shape our approach to education today.

Competitive advantage – where does it come from?


Today’s competitive advantage comes from the product of ‘innovation’ and ‘performance’.  In turn, ‘performance’ is the product of ‘productivity’ and ‘quality’.   Innovation is the product of ‘creativity’ and ‘the ability to change’.   These four elements (productivity, quality, creativity, change) that come directly from the efforts of happy, educated, motivated people, underpin our society’s competitive advantage.  Without a positive workforce, you cannot achieve a positive economic performance that competes with the best.

The globe is transforming at a rapid rate, incremental change became exponential, and exponential change became ‘meteoric change’ (where increasing numbers of unexpected events collide to produce totally unexpected results, challenges, ideas, markets, products and technologies).   We are living in a time of multiple and regular, but unpredictable, paradigm shifts.

Almost impossibly, schools and colleges need to be preparing students for jobs, technology and problems that don’t yet exist, jobs and technology that have not been invented yet.   They will start courses and degrees, where the third and fourth year curriculums will change before the end of their first.

So education is about growth and change, more so than ever before.  It is key to any current or future competitive advantage in Scotland.  Hence, education is vital to sustainable economic growth in Scotland. Education and research are both inexorably linked to Scotland’s future regardless of the referendum result.

Scottish education – are we still the best?

Scotland has always had a good reputation for education.  It seems to be something in the culture and psyche of the Scots that made us determined educators and learners.  Or perhaps, in part, a determination to lift ourselves out of poverty over many decades.

In any case, we must not allow ourselves to rest on any laurels. While there is some improvement in Scotland’s school system, Scotland is slipping behind other countries as diverse as Finland, Singapore and even China.

What is the problem?ChildPoverty460x276

A recent report by the public policy institute and think tank, Reform Scotland, recognised that education was vital to Scotland’s future economic success, tackling our socio-economic problems and underpinning societal and individual health and fulfilment. It also highlighted  “a particular problem, is Scotland’s continuing failure to tackle successfully the educational consequences of social and economic disadvantage”.

They went further by saying ‘in seeking to improve, Scotland faces a problem that it has so far struggled unsuccessfully to tackle effectively. Scotland contains some areas of the most concentrated disadvantage in Europe. In these neighbourhoods, educational performance lags significantly behind, contributing to persistent problems with employment, low income, poor health, drug and alcohol dependency, crime and poorer housing.

The inter-generational cycles of poor performance in educational outcomes themselves need to be broken if the individuals and families of these communities are to enjoy a better future and if Scotland’s overall performance in education is to improve markedly.’ 

In other words, poverty and social inequality is hampering Scotland’s educational performance and international reputation in primary and secondary education.

What about universities and research?

The good news is Scotland does extremely well for its size in higher education.

“More research is conducted in Scotland than any other country, relative to wealth per head of population’ and ‘Scotland has the highest concentration of universities in Europe with every Scottish institution undertaking world-leading research and over half of all Scottish research is rated as internationally excellent”, according to an official study by Scottish Development International, trade and investment arm of the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands & Islands Enterprise.

Furthermore, “Scotland’s academics produce one percent of all research publications in the world – ranking Scotland third in the world for the number of research publications published per head of the population”.

Alarm bells


In the meantime, youth unemployment (18 – 24 year olds) as a percentage of the labour force in Scotland is as high as 14% in some areas and averages around 7.4%. The number of young people, unemployed for two years or more is at a 20-year high, although in part thanks to the response of the Scottish Government, Scotland’s youth employment is rising faster than elsewhere in the UK.

So, we have deteriorating school performance, excellent university performance and a challenge of youth unemployment in Scotland.  No particular conclusions can be drawn from this without further study and analysis of who is going to University, what is the potential impact of worsening school performance and how are we tackling youth unemployment.

But these trends should still be ringing alarm bells for people who care about Scotland and understand the casual link between poverty, education and inequality.   As part of the Westminster system, we live in the fourth most unequal country in the developed world.  The gap between the rich and the poor is at the widest it has ever been, but worse, social mobility (the ability to better your financial status) has deteriorated significantly since the turn of the century.  According to a recent report by Alan Milburn (former Labour Health Secretary) “Britain remains a deeply divided country”, one where “being born poor often leads to a lifetime of poverty”.

Academic research

Research is the one thing that transcends borders and cultural differences. Why, for instance, would the UK Research Council function any differently after Independence?  What do the UK Research Council say on their own website? ‘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.’

In fact the UK significantly underperforms some Nordics and other small European countries in both Nobels and Patents – so much for being better together.

Nobels Population (m) Nobels / Million people
Iceland 1 0.3 3.33
Switz 26 8 3.25
Sweden 30 9.6 3.13
Denmark 14 5.5 2.55
Austria 19 8.5 2.24
Norway 11 5 2.20
UK 119 63.2 1.88
Ireland 7 4.6 1.52
Germany 101 80.5 1.25
Finland 4 5.5 0.73
Scandanavia 72 28.4 2.54

The figures in the above table show that the assertions of the No Campaign that UK punches above its weight don’t hold true.  Based on the evidence at least, Scotland could be doing better an as independent country competing on its own merit.

In addition the European Union provides much of university research funding and it is creating the new Horizon 2020 research-funding program:

“Horizon 2020 is the financial instrument implementing the Innovation Union, a Europe 2020 flagship initiative aimed at securing Europe’s global competitiveness. Running from 2014 to 2020 with a budget of just over €70 billion1, the EU’s new programme for research and innovation is part of the drive to create new growth and jobs in Europe.

Horizon 2020 provides major simplification through a single set of rules. It will combine all research and innovation funding currently provided through the Framework Programmes for Research and Technical Development, the innovation related activities of the Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme (CIP) and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT).

The proposed support for research and innovation under Horizon 2020 will:

Strengthen the EU’s position in science with a dedicated budget of € 24 34 million1. This will provide a boost to top-level research in Europe, including the very successful European Research Council (ERC).

Strengthen industrial leadership in innovation € 17 015 million1. This includes major investment in key technologies, greater access to capital and support for SMEs.

Provide € 30 956 million1 to help address major concerns shared by all Europeans such as climate change, developing sustainable transport and mobility, making renewable energy more affordable, ensuring food safety and security, or coping with the challenge of an ageing population.”

As Sir Paul Nurse of the Royal Society pointed out in January of this year: “In the current EU research framework programme (how the EU invests in research) the UK is the second largest recipient of funding. In the five years since 2007 our scientists in businesses, universities and elsewhere are estimated to have received around £3.7bn from Europe. Just this week it has been announced that 80 out of the 302 senior researchers awarded a share in €680m of European Research Council funding will be based in the UK, twice as many as the next most successful country.”
Will Scotland still enjoy the opportunity of EU research funding if as looks distinctly possibly the UK leaves the EU before 2017? The best way to avoid that scenario is to keep Scotland in the EU with a Yes vote in next September’s independence referendum.

Scotland has a chance to change

Scotland should be thinking of research and rducation as one of the pillars of success after independence.  It needs to be in sharp focus as a newly independent country emerges, especially one looking to capitalise on current strengths.  We need to build on the competencies and talent we have, including our excellent teaching staff at all levels.  And we need to do this in conjunction with a rapid reinvestment and improvement in primary and secondary education (specifically tackling the attainment gap) and ensuring that none of our young talent is wasted.

China and India have more ‘honours graduates’ than exists the total number of graduates in the whole of the United States. They have millions more top graduates to compete against us.  For this reason, if we want to compete, we have to focus on the potential of every single young person in Scotland. I believe that focus and the tools required to respond are only possible with independence.  We need to become a country that is truly ‘fit to compete’.  And we can.

This means a change in the way we do things.  But education is not just about the ‘way we teach’ or ‘the subjects we teach’ or ‘the way exams are sat’ or ‘school performance regulated’.  Success in education requires a healthy economy, business sector, culture, and society.


Education is a right and a necessity for any forward thinking egalitarian and democratic society.   It is the basis of equal opportunity and social justice.  It is the foundation of the social and economic competencies with which we will compete in the globalising world.

Free education is therefore the right strategy for Scotland.  We already know this will be under threat in the event of a ‘No’ vote.   We already know that poverty and inequality have worsened under the Westminster system and can certainly improve with independence.  We already know that Westminster plan further austerity measures, like the bedroom tax, which will shake the very foundations of opportunity for educational attainment amongst our young people.


I cannot help wondering if the previous radical, freethinking and egalitarian nature of university education in the UK, changed after Margaret Thatcher, and the focus shifted to a more individualistic and somewhat selfish approach. It seems today’s university courses and learning focus more on maximising individual performance and opportunity than they did in the past.  Have we focussed on maximising individual output amongst the few at the expense of a more holistic approach to the health and happiness of broader society?  Do the limitations of the Scottish Parliament’s power reduce the prospects of a more holistic approach which recognises Scotland’s distinct characteristics, challenges and opportunities. I cannot help wonder if we have failed to teach the rights and responsibilities of democratic citizenship.  Perhaps, I am wrong, but I don’t think so. It’s hardly a surprise that in response, a fresh take on older principles of collective citizenship, rights and responsibilities are coming to the fore, including through the concept of the Common Weal.

We should always hold in mind the UN Declaration of Human Rights statement on education:  ‘Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.’

We need to manage all the economic and wider policy levers that underpin the delivery of effective education. We need to use these levers to establish a platform of social justice that allows all our young talent to reach up for the highest apple on the learning tree, in a way which produces the most productive, well educated and skilful employees for public and private sector employment.

We are being presented with a one in a lifetime opportunity to show the world that we can lead the way again, as an enlightened, medium-sized nation which understands the link between people realising their potential and economic success and therefore the importance of investing in education and research.

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About the author

Eric McLean

An Organisational Development Consultant and Fellow of the CIPD with a strong interest in the positive psychology of Independence, and the potential for a new business economy that leverages Scotland's Human Capital.
Collaboration in a new economic Scotland could address not just local, but global challenges for communities and businesses.
Independence is a chance to go back to the drawing board and build a new enlightened society starting with the removal of nuclear weapons but stretching to a Human Capital architecture that could transform the way we do business. Eric would like to spend the next ten years of his life contributing to this vision.

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