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.
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.
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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