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Higher education in Scotland benefits as part of UK says Carmichael

Scottish Secretary delivers speech on higher education.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government


Scotland can access UK higher education research funding only because we are part of the United Kingdom, Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael will say in a speech today.

Speaking to a higher education audience in Edinburgh, Mr Carmichael will say the Scottish Government need to accept that leaving the UK means leaving UK institutions such as UK Research Councils and the funding they provide.

He will argue that the evidence is stacked up against the Scottish Government’s claims that they could keep UK-wide research funding pointing out that there is no international precedent for sharing research funding on the scale of the UK across international borders.

Mr Carmichael will describe the Scottish Government’s independence plans as a ‘mirage’ saying it is not realistic to leave the UK and then seek a common research area, a common currency area, a common border area and common regulations for business.

Speaking at the ESRC in Edinburgh, Alistair Carmichael will say:

Our academic history here in Scotland stretches back over the centuries. We have some of the oldest universities in the land. With history and tradition running through the corridors and halls. But it is to the future that we must look – a bright future if our current world rankings are anything to go by. Five Scottish Universities rank in the latest top 200, including both of my own alma maters: Glasgow and Aberdeen.

The UK as a whole excels in academic excellence. We are ranked second only to the United States in terms of world-class research. The UK’s share of the world’s top 1 per cent most cited publications is on an upward trend. And in 2013 the UK was ranked third in the world for innovation.

There are many reasons for this success – but one that is absolutely fundamental is the highly integrated research environment that our universities and higher education institutions can operate within. This integration ensures a coherent and strategic approach to research activity in a common research area. It allows funding, ideas and people to flow unhindered across the UK in pursuit of research excellence. And that is of benefit to us all.

A benefit that comes from being part of a United Kingdom. As part of the UK we are able to share the costs and risks of research, funding it from a large and diverse tax base to make research more affordable.

As we set out in that paper, in 2010 the UK Government allocated £1.9 billion for science and research capital for the period 2011-15. And since then we’ve allocated an additional £1.5 billion funding for science and innovation capital. We’ve got a network of seven Research Councils operating across the UK providing a clear strategic overview of all research disciplines.

This network minimises duplication and overlap in institutions, maximising our ability to make new and innovative discoveries, and to go on to turn these discoveries into the next miracle cures of the future. A shared set of policy guidelines, rules and regulatory arrangements provide a consistent grounding for research excellence and a shared framework on which research collaborations can be built.

  • In 2012-13, Scotland secured £257 million of research grant funding from the UK Research Councils.

  • This amounts to 13% of the funding available, all for a country which has 8.4% of the UK population.

  • Higher Education Research and Development figures for 2011 show that Scottish HEIs spent £953 million. This is the equivalent to approximately £180 per head of population in Scotland compared with £112 across the UK as a whole.

Mr Carmichael will continue:

We don’t get access to this despite being part of the UK, we get it because we are part of the UK. So the questions we need to ask ourselves are:

Could an independent Scottish state maintain the level of research quality excellence currently enjoyed by Scottish Higher Education Institutions as part of the UK? What evidence is there that independence would improve the performance of our institutions?

It’s not just me asking these questions. We’ve seen academics specialising in subjects as diverse as bacteriology to space engineering, veterinary science to the food industry. Highlighting the risks, not only to research but to the whole higher education sector in Scotland.

All the Scottish Government did in their White Paper was to draw attention to everything that is already good about higher education in Scotland. At the same time they singularly failed to examine what we stand to lose by breaking up the UK-wide networks that we have.

According to the Scottish Government we’ll have a common research area between an independent Scotland and the continuing UK. Sounds a lot like what we have right now doesn’t it? Except of course for one vital distinction.

National Governments fund national research. There is no international precedent for sharing or replicating a system on the scale of the current UK funding streams across international borders. And that’s what a vote for independence this September would mean.

It would mean creating a new separate Scottish state; and at the same time creating a new international border with England, Wales and Northern Ireland – the continuing UK. You have to ask yourselves why would a state that we had just chosen to leave, want to carry on sharing institutions, funding, expertise in the same way that we do now because we are part of it?

An independent Scottish state might wish to share arrangements and facilities but we do not share our Research Council funding – or have a common research framework, the very life-blood of research and innovation in the UK – with other states. Why should Scotland expect to be treated differently?

The White Paper states that the Scottish Government would seek to continue the current arrangements for a common research area. Much as they seem to seek a common currency area; common border area; common regulations for business.

I have said elsewhere that while the Scottish Government want people to believe they have a vision, in fact what they proffer is a mirage. And like all mirages, the closer you get, the less real it becomes.

In research – as in so many other areas – there can be no guarantees. If we vote in September to create a new separate state, we also vote to leave the United Kingdom. Becoming a new state means setting up new institutions. And it means leaving the institutions we have in the UK, like the UK Research Councils.

Published 29 January 2014