Future of Scottish Higher Education Hinges on Independence Vote

The future of schools and universities in Scotland is at the forefront of a debate over independence currently going on within the United Kingdom. Scotland’s citizens are going to the ballot box on Thursday, September 18 to decide whether to become an independent country or stay in the UK.

Questions have been brought up concerning tuition fees, overseas students, research grants, teacher recruitment and exam options, all of which would be affected by a vote for independence.

A policy by the Scottish government to offer free tuition to students who reside in Scotland could see an expansion to include all UK students if Scotland becomes an independent member of the EU.  According to EU regulations, countries cannot discriminate against residents from other EU states.

“There doesn’t seem to be any way around this rule. It has been tested in Austria where they have tried to have differential fees, but this failed in the European courts,” says professor David Bell from Stirling University, who has examined the financial impact of independence.

The Scottish government estimates that even if the number of other EU residents enrolled in Scottish schools were to rise by a small percentage, between 2-5%, those numbers would equal those of home students, which would present two problems, according to professor Sheila Riddell of the University of Edinburgh.

“If there was an increase in other UK students, then there would be fewer places available for Scottish students. And if they studied for free, there would be a loss of revenue for the older universities where they tend to go,” says Riddell, who led a recent ESRC study into the possible consequences for higher education after a yes vote.

Riddell believes one possible solution to be offering bursaries by the Scottish government to home students in order to pay their fees.

Academics are concerned about research cash for Scotland, which many believe receives more than its fair share.  Last year the top four Scottish universities received £107 million ($174 million) from the seven UK research councils.

The Scottish government is promising that research investments in the country will allow Scotland to remain internationally competitive, and Scotland will remain part of a common research area with the rest of the UK.

Also of concern is the ability of universities to attract students from overseas.

Universities Scotland say: “The UK Government’s current policy on immigration makes universities uncompetitive in the market for international students and its rhetoric on immigration has been highly damaging.  In the last couple of years we have seen the number of international students coming to Scotland fall for the first time ever.”

The goal is for international students to not be included in the immigration count, as well as to allow for those students to stay and obtain jobs after graduation.

Currently, a survey conducted by The Times Higher Education (THE) magazine, has discovered that of 1,000 educators surveyed, more than one-half, 54.8% said they would vote No on Scottish independence.  About 41% intend to vote yes, and the rest were not sure.