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Independence and union(s): Universities, Brexit and the future of the Scottish Funding Council

There has been a remarkable contrast between Scottish universities' approaches to the independence and Brexit referendums. Lucy Hunter Blackburn asks whether continued constitutional strain will cost the sector its autonomy.
This article is more than 7 years old

Lucy Hunter Blackburn is a Contributing Editor at Wonkhe and currently an ESRC-funded postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, and former Head of Higher Education in the Scottish Government.

During the referendum on Scottish independence, it was phlegmatically observed by some that the country’s universities (four of them, anyway) long pre-dated the creation of the United Kingdom, and would cope with whatever constitutional twist came next.

Scottish universities, it was noted, collaborated across the globe, and employed staff from many countries. Research funds could come from a UK body or equally well – perhaps preferably even – from a Scottish one. The nation’s universities emphasised that whatever decision was taken by the people of Scotland, they would make it work: they remained neutral throughout the referendum campaign.

Universities across the UK have not responded so neutrally to the prospect of leaving the European Union. They have emphasised that formal political union makes much easier the movement of staff and students, and enables greater research collaboration. Scottish universities have been as vocal as any, with the Principal of the University of Edinburgh recently telling the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster that the impact of Brexit could be “catastrophic”. He noted that around 25% of the university’s research staff come from the EU and around 10% of its research funding.

For anyone who has followed the debate around higher education in Scotland over recent years, the difference in approach to the two referendums is fascinating. It is possible that university leaders simply see no analogy at all, although that would be surprising: in principle, many of the arguments and counter-arguments look similar.

At a practical level, some of the numbers involved in relation to the UK look if anything larger than those for the EU. Take Edinburgh as an example. The university receives more than twice as much research income from the research councils as from the EU and has more than twice as many ‘rest of UK’ as ‘rest of EU’ undergraduates. UK students bring in extra income over the border, while EU students occupy funded places that could otherwise be filled by Scots. Edinburgh has slightly more taught postgraduates from the rest of the UK than from the EU, and a few more research postgraduates. The insecurity and potential loss of staff is understandably a serious and urgent concern, and there’s no obvious way to compare the numbers, but to insist that there are no relevant parallels whatsoever seems a little odd.

With the possibility of a further referendum on independence within the next few years, the difficulty universities (and the Scottish government) now face is not that the arguments are identical in the two cases, but that they have taken positions at such opposite ends of the spectrum in relation to each. The government will probably get away with that. The universities will be taking a bigger risk to their reputations if they stick to their 2014 stance.

So far, with Scotland largely sympathetic to remaining in the EU, no-one seems inclined to question too hard why the loss of a joint political structure which provides less research cash and fewer students is a disaster while losing the other would be no great shakes. But in a future referendum, that questioning is likely to become sharper: detailed arguments captured by Hansard this year can now be played back.

One of the more persuasive arguments for seeing the two in such different lights is that, forgetting the figures for a moment, Brexit risks inflicting serious international reputational harm on British (and by extension, Scottish) universities, while Scottish independence might either go largely unnoticed, or even give the sector an additional glamour to prospective staff and students. The UK government’s approach to immigration helps that argument, while its handling of the post-study work visa trial, limited to London, Oxford, Cambridge and Bath, looks either monumentally cack-handed or a carefully-directed insult to the rest of the country. Wales, Northern Ireland, the Midlands and the North of England all have equal reason to feel aggrieved, but Scotland has the political machinery, media and institutions best placed to react.

Bite the hand that feeds

A less flattering explanation for the very different positions taken by the universities in 2014 and 2016 would be the desire not to fall out with the Scottish government. Universities will of course robustly deny this. Yet it is hard not to observe that general arguments about the value of formal political interconnectedness would have been very risky for the sector to run in 2014 are now exactly what Scottish ministers want to hear. The Scottish government is the sector’s largest funder, and the universities are one of the Scottish government’s larger expenses: free tuition means that all teaching funding for Scottish and EU undergraduates remains centrally provided.

Holyrood also sets the statutory framework. With the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act 2016, the government placed its hand just a little more firmly on universities’ collective shoulder. In the last few weeks, Ministers have shown signs of wanting to grip a little tighter still. At the end of October, the government published its response to a review of the structures for funding enterprise in Scotland. It proposed the creation of an “over-arching” board to co-ordinate the activities of Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland, and the Scottish Funding Council, which covers colleges as well as universities. No-one paid much attention.

Last week, it became apparent that members of the board of the Funding Council had been privately told that the Council’s board will be wound up, once the new over-arching body is in place. The Scottish government seemed disinclined, moreover, to rule out that the proposed new body might be chaired by a minister. The UK government has been roundly accused of opening the way to greater government interference in universities by abolishing HEFCE. It was noticeable at the time – and even more in hindsight – that the Scottish government did not react, as it often does in such situations, by emphasising its difference in approach and distancing itself from Whitehall’s plans.

It will be challenge enough for the sector to have the distribution of all its government funding decided by a board charged with promoting economic development. If a government minister, or even a civil servant, were to chair such a body, it would also mean the end of the decades-old firewall set up specifically in order to protect against direct government influence over who wins and who loses, when funds are shared among universities. It is not clear that such a change would need primary legislation and, as with the recent Act, the government may feel it can draw on some wider political and public support.

To justify retaining their current arms-length relationship, Scottish universities will need to mount a case that their distinctive value rests in their intellectual freedom, not least their ability to follow a line of inquiry into uncomfortable places. Yet they find themselves in a period of political history where the immediate rewards lie in ignoring, rather than exploring, the obvious parallels between the two largest political changes contemplated for the country in our lifetimes. Scottish universities will no doubt survive the constitutional twists ahead: at what sort of cost is not yet clear.

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