Research policy and Scottish independence: two bald men fighting over a comb?

Old College, Edinburgh University (from

Old College, Edinburgh University (from

As the date for Scotland’s referendum draws nearer, so the battlefields become wider, and the two sides are now debating the future of research funding. The higher education researcher Jim Gallacher has published his view that academic research is more strongly supported within the Union than it would be in an independent Scotland. For the ‘Yes’ camp, Bryan MacGregor has argued that independence will allow Scottish institutions to develop closer business relations and pursue distinctively Scottish priorities.

Like much of the referendum debate, this sounds like two parties with completely opposing views of the world. But a closer look at the argument suggests to me that there isn’t much prospect of significant changes in the funding of university research, regardless of the outcome on 18 September.

Much public spending on university research is already decided in Scotland. The Scottish Funding Council allocates research funding through the block grant mechanism (next year’s total will be just shy of £300 bn). The allocation within Scotland is based on a formula that takes into account the outcomes of the Research Evaluation Framework (REF), a UK-wide process that the Scottish sector chooses to – but does not have to – support.

Next, the Scottish Government and its agencies are significant contractors. Of course, the Government could increase or reduce its allocation to SFC after independence, but this is a devolved decision that is made in Scotland.

Research policy is, though, an area of shared sovereignty, with part being allocated at UK level. Most of this is channelled through the Research Councils, and Scottish universities are relatively successful at bidding competitively for these funds. Currently, the Scottish Government says that it would like to see the Research Councils continue on a UK basis; obviously, this means negotiating with the rest of the UK, but it hardly suggests radical change. Devolved administrations already contribute to decisions on RC priorities, and the Scottish Government is essentially suggesting that this stays unchanged.

Then there is the element of research funding that is passed on to the European Commission. The EC funds research through the European Research Council, the European Framework Programmes, and through specific programmes administered by its departments and agencies. Again, Scottish universities do reasonably well in the competitive process.

In the event of a ‘Yes’ majority next month, then Scotland will become the 29th member state and will therefore join the European research schemes (I think we can entirely discount suggestions that Scotland will be required to join the queue of candidate states). It will have to pay money into the shared pot, and it will be represented in the decision-making process, though as a small member state its voice will not be a loud one. So this does mark a change, but I see it as a relatively minor one.

Finally, other bodies also fund academic research. This includes charities and corporations, the largest of which – such as big pharma or the energy industry – have a very questionable influence on higher education institutions. No one really knows how this will change if there is a ‘Yes’, but my own guess is that the factors that already make Scottish researchers attractive or unattractive to these funders will continue to determine where the funding goes. However, no one can pretend that the decisions of big pharma or the oil giants are based on ‘distinctive Scottish priorities’.

Overall, then, the machinery of academic research should largely rumble on as before, uninfluenced by the referendum outcome. There is, though, one further factor, which would be on my ‘worry list’ if I were running a Scottish university. Currently, Scottish institutions do very well from recruiting students from the rest of the UK, and charging them a sizeable fee. When Scotland becomes a separate member of the EU, that will stop, removing a very significant source of income from the sector, but that is a separate issue.

Declaration of interest: Jim Gallacher is a friend and he holds an honorary post at the University of Stirling – as do I

Why the Scottish Government is wrong about tuition fees and the EU

>If Scots vote to leave the UK in September, the Scottish Government plans to continue to charging tuition fees for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not for anyone else in the European Union. I’ve argued before that this is unlikely to happen, and today a former EU Commissioner for Education and Training is quoted as saying that all EU students would have to receive ‘the same treatment’.

Only in Scotland, and only this year, would anyone think this news. The legal position is quite clear. European legislation on free movement of labour – one of the central founding principles of the EU – covers higher education, which is treated legally as a form of vocational training. There have been challenges in the past to the definition of higher education as a form of vocational training, and the courts have always rejected them.

If you’re interested in reading about the origins and rationale of this rather quirky legal status, you can always get a library copy of my now rather dated book on European education policies. But the main consequence was that it allowed the EU to develop a series of mobility schemes and collaborative projects, and still underpins such programmes as Erasmus+.

So under current European law, the Scottish Government must treat all EU citizens equally in respect of access to higher education. Of course, the Government can try to get the law changed, and it might well wish to have higher education redefined as an area of national rather than European competence, but it has not said it will do so. And at present I can’t see how a small, new member state will be able to gather together enough support for the European Commission to change its current stance.

In its White Paper on independence, the Scottish Government effectively says that it will seek an opt-out. It doesn’t use that phrase, of course, which is popularly associated with the Coservative Party. Rather, it says that it will if necessary present an ‘objective justification’ for an exemption, based on the unique and exceptional position of Scotland in relation to other parts of the UK, on the relative size of the rest of the UK, on the fee differential, on our shared land border and common language, on the qualification structure, on the quality of our university sector, and on the high demand for places.

Michael Russell, Scotland's Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning

Michael Russell, Scotland’s Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning

Will this wash? Well, I think it just about possible, but highly unlikely. If accepted, it would open up a massive boîte de Pandore. And here are just a few of the most obvious reasons why.

At the most general level, it runs against current EU policies on higher education, which aim at improving professional mobility by increasing the numbers of students who attend a university in another European country than their own, and aligning the qualifications structures of universities in different European countries. More particularly, it would present a precedent for other countries in similar situations (eg. Denmark/Sweden, Wallonie/France, Netherlands/Flanders, Luxembourg and everyone). It would also annoy the socks off higher education ministers and rectors who have persuaded university staff to teach in English. The practical consequences elsewhere would also be significant, starting with the effects in our neighbouring island of Ireland.

So you can just imagine how other ministers of education will react when Mike Russell, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, sets out his plans to the European Council on Education. I would like to be in that room.

HE tuition fees and EU membership: a Scottish dilemma

Today I read a short report in the Scotsman on the future of higher education tuition fees should an independent Scotland join the EU. This is a pretty trivial topic, unless you are directly affected yourself; in importance, it barely compares with the massive socio-economic inequalities of access to university education in Scotland. So it seemed a good topic for a summer blog.

The issue itself is fairly simple. Currently, the Scottish Government will not allow universities to charge fees for home full-time undergraduates. As the UK is a member of the EU, Scotland’s public universities must offer undergraduate degrees on the same bases to all citizens of the EU, and therefore cannot charge them fees. Unless, that is, they come from elsewhere in the UK.

This seems an anomalous position, and a hardy Edinburgh student promptly challenged it in the courts. She lost her case. The reason that the Scottish Government can treat students from the rest of the UK differently is that, under current EU law, Scotland’s is a regional government, and not a national one. And this position has now been upheld by the courts.

The question addressed in the Scotsman was what happens if an independent Scotland should join the EU. The obvious answer is that English, Welsh and Northern Irish applicants will be treated as foreigners from another EU state, and will be treated on the same terms as Scottish – or Bavarian or Basque – candidates.

If this comes about, then it will cause considerable turbulence within the Scottish higher education system. At present, the number of fundable student places is limited; they are free to Scots and other EU students, but the universities can only admit a specified number. There are also rules about how many students must be studying certain subjects, which are judged of national importance. But universities can top up these numbers with fee-paying students from the rest of the UK.

In an independent Scotland within the EU, then English, Welsh and Northern Irish students would be competing for the fixed number of student places. And if there are no tuition fees, then we can expect very large numbers of people from the rest of the UK to fancy taking a degree in Scotland.

But according to the Scottish Government, independence will change nothing. The Scotsman quoted the First Minister as saying that ““We believe we can maintain the current arrangement and we’ve got legal advice to that effect”. The Scottish Conservative spokesperson promptly demanded that Mr Salmond publish this advice.

And here is where I give licence to any Über-Nationalist reader to dismiss anything else I say, ever. Because I think the Conservatives are right. Not on everything, but right on this.

If there is any such legal advice, then I would be very surprised. It’s some years since my knowledge of this was fresh (I published a study of the EU and its educational policies in the late 1990s), but the principle of free movement of labour – and the consequent insistence of equal access to training – is one of the founding objectives of the EU.

Why on earth would the EU make an exception for a candidate country, when all other candidate countries have had to take the entire body of EU law as a given? So this advice would transform our existing understanding of EU law on education, and on higher education in particular (which, for technical reasons, has been treated in EU law as a form of vocational training). I suspect that the Government will have to publish the advice eventually, and it may as well come clean now, rather than wait until it is forced to do so reluctantly.