Westminster Mismanagement

UK Universities Minister needs to do his homework

willetts

When David Cameron refused to accept the responsibility of debating Scotland’s future, he claimed independence was a decision for people in Scotland. Yet a clear pattern has emerged. Every few weeks a Tory Minister – without an electoral mandate in Scotland – releases an attack on Scotland’s ability to govern its own affairs. This week it’s the turn of David Willetts, the Westminster Universities Minister.

Despite the fact that his own sector is now dominated by mounting debt on the backs of English students (one forecast was £53,000 of debt per student in England compared to just £2,025 in Scotland), Willetts chose to criticise the funding structure for research in Scotland.

He highlighted the fact that Scottish universities are successful at applying for funding grants, have access to international projects, and have access to UK embassies.

Scotland has a world-leading higher education sector

However, these claims merely reinforce the fact that Scotland has a world-leading higher education sector that will continue after independence. Scotland’s economy, therefore, has great strengths in research and development, as well as in certain technological industries. Many of Scotland’s universities have already developed a global presence because of this success.

Instead, having full control over research funding in Scotland is an opportunity to improve the current system. With the majority of higher education policy already set in Scotland, research would benefit from a consistent approach and stronger influence from the parliament in Holyrood. Currently policy towards investing in higher education has diverged sharply between Westminster and Scotland.

The UK that has fallen behind

While Scotland has a stronger research and education base, it is the UK that has fallen behind global trends in investment. Professor Paul Whiteley analysed this trend on the London School of Economics site. He wrote that “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.”

This is reinforced by a reading of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) report ‘Education at a Glance 2012‘. The UK invests less in Higher Education than medium sized independent countries such as Norway, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. Scotland’s economic success will depend upon following such models.

The Truth

Willetts’ claims, however, are also contradicted by the UK Research Council itself and by developments within the European Union.

The Research Council says: “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.”

Universities Scotland agree. In their response to the UK Government release, the body stated: “It is in everyone’s interests that this important and vigorous cross-border collaboration is supported to continue, whatever the result of the constitutional referendum.”

Furthermore, the EU Horizon project aims to expand research cooperation at an EU level. This is a further example of the benefit of cross-national research cooperation.

Professor Sir Ian Diamond, Principal of Aberdeen University, outlined the common interests at stake in sharing research and funding. He said there was “no question” that Scottish Universities would continue a relationship with current research councils.

Professor Diamond continued, “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.”

David Willetts has clear political motivations as a Tory cabinet member wishing to spread uncertainty among academics in Scotland. In contrast, the view of Professor Diamond – who has great experience as a former chairman of the Research Council executive group – is based upon a mature desire for cooperation irrespective of the referendum result.

If anything, it is Willetts’ Westminster cabinet colleagues – currently lobbying for a referendum on leaving the EU – who risk funding isolation and uncertainty for universities in Scotland.

Conclusion

Higher Education is a devolved matter and Scotland’s universities are fairing far better under Scottish control than rUK universities.  In the rest of the UK, on David Willet’s watch, higher education comes at an unfair and unsustainable price tag in the shape of tuition fees and given that Scotland has five universities in the top 200 in the world, the most per head of population anywhere in the world (England would need fifty to boast the same level of success) David Willetts shouldn’t come to Scotland to scaremonger, he should have come to find out how its done.

Higher education both in terms of quality graduates and quality research is a key strength for an independent Scotland to build upon and the real scare story is that if Scotland votes No and the eurosceptic population of London and the South East vote to leave the EU then all of the EU funding so vital for Scotland’s universities will dry up.

A No vote would not only bring increased uncertainty it would come with guaranteed cost to our university research base.

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About the author

Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp

Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp is the Founder and Chief Executive of Business for Scotland. Before becoming CEO of Business for Scotland he ran a small social media and sales & marketing consultancy.

With a degree in business, marketing and economics, Gordon has worked as an economic development planning professional, and in marketing roles specialising in pricing modelling and promotional evaluation for global companies (including P&G).

Gordon benefits (not suffers) from dyslexia, and is a proponent of the emerging New Economics School. Gordon contributes articles to Business for Scotland, The National and The Huffington Post.

5 Comments

  • I have asked elsewhere whether Scotland would continue to contribute to the likes of CERN and ITER. Hopefully the White Paper will clear away any doubts I might have. It is not make or break for me, but it appears to be one of the topics that no-one discusses.

    (A bit like the common assumption that the rUK will inherit all the Crown Colonies. Why? )

    It is important to me that we continue to fund the enlightenment, although that is a high falutin’ way of putting it.

    Given that we have – a now Nobel Laureate – Peter Higgs – living in Edinburgh whose ideas, shared with others, justified the Large Hadron Collider, I expect we will continue to contribute to the idea of international collaboration on scientific research.

    For some of this stuff is really, really expensive!

  • Below is the text of an e-mail I have received from a mate of mine with whom I have been debating independence. He works at one of our universities and has concerns about the implications of independence for research funding. collaboration, etc. The attachment he refers to is a pdf document which I can’t post here but is an article in the Biochemical Society Journal, October 2013, page 58.

    Thoughts?

    QUOTE “Business for Scotland” has a clear agenda in all this and the choice of data and quotations plays to that bias. Many of the issues are not so clear-cut as the article would lead the reader to believe but then I guess most of their readers are already pretty clear in their minds which way they will be voting next year.

    The attachment has a rather more objective take on the issues.

    For me, the big questions remaining unanswered are:

    Whether Scottish researchers would remain eligible for funding from charities based in England

    Whether similar issues would apply to funding and facilities from RCUK

    How the EU position might change with Scottish independence

    I’m not aware of clear policy statements on any of these issues. UNQUOTE

  • Unfortunately, I’ve heard nothing from the SNP or YES Scotland about plans to fund research. All I’ve read is bluster that ‘we’re great and we’ll continue to be great’. But how!? Cross-border collaboration is all well and good, but there must be practical arrangements for substantive research funding. Scotland can’t ‘buy in’ to UK research councils (such as the Natural Environment Research Council – NERC) and still maintain academic integrity in a competitive grants set-up.

    There simply has to be a new Scottish Research Council system to dole out funds for research at home and with collaborators abroad. If we have any ambition to be science leaders in the next few decades, the council will have to be damn well funded.

    In my field (Geosciences) there will also have to be plans for what happens to NERC-run facilities in Scotland such as the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh and the Environmental Research Centre in East Kilbride. These are key components of current whole-UK research and I can’t imagine them being ceded easily to an independent Scotland.

    I will be voting Yes for all manner of economic, social and political reasons, but there must be a good plan for research funding beyond collective back-slapping, lest we rapidly become an academic backwater.

    • Iain University research funding will be dealt with tin the Scottish Governments White Paper, published on Tuesday 26th. Till that point I would imagine they are not going to leak it out one bit at a time just because a UK Government Minister with only a partial remit for Scotland comes up to scaremonger.

      It strikes me that there is no substance to the scare-story but actual commitments from the Scottish government will come soon.

  • The most peculiar part of the report is the claim that University scientists in an independent Scotland would not be able to access international facilities such as CERN, presumably on the basis that participation in a number of European collaborative depends on a national “club fees” and that these are currently paid for by the UK Research Councils. The simple solution – that Scotland will pay its own fees – does not seem to have occurred to the authors of the report. Such costs are already attributed to Scotland’s notional budget through UK allocated expenditure as recorded in GERS. True, this probably is not as high as the total value to Scotland from Research Council funding v population share but the difference is not large and you make a good point about expenditure in comparator countries such as Denmark being higher.

    Science thrives on collaboration and I cannot see scientists on either side of the border allowing petty politics to stand in the way of that collaboration.

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