Speech

The future of higher education in Scotland and the UK

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

Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael addresses an Economic and Social Research Council event at Edinburgh University.

Thank you Charlie for that introduction, and for handing me the task of keeping our audience invigorated immediately after lunch.

I am delighted to be able to join you today to speak about what is, by any measure, a Scottish success story.

In Scottish higher education, we have a sector that enjoys an international reputation for excellence. A sector that punches above its weight on research.

And a sector that is currently teaching record numbers of students.

Earlier this month, figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Authority showed that in 2012/13 the number of qualifiers in Scotland was up.

The proportion of students obtaining a first or second class degree is higher in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK. And we have a higher proportion of women qualifying in science and technology.

The future

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. 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 in the Global Innovation Index.

UK-wide research

There are many reasons for this success – but one that is absolutely fundamental is the highly integrated research environment in which our universities and higher education institutions can operate.

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.

And that is where I want to focus my comments today.

For too long there has been the simplistic assumption of devolved and reserved.

Devolved – for the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government alone. Reserved for the UK Parliament and UK Government.

But the reality is much more complex than that.

Whilst policy responsibility resides either north or south of the border, we all continue to work within a shared common framework.
And perhaps nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than higher education and research.

Last year I published a paper in our Scotland analysis series with the Minister for Universities and Science, that examined the contribution Scotland makes to our UK-wide research framework, and the benefits that Scotland gets as a result.

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.

Research councils

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 maximizing 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.

And it’s not just at home that we invest.

Through our Embassies and consulates we have a Science and Innovation network in 29 different countries to help extend the reach of the UK’s research base.

Here in Scotland we’ve grasped the nettle to make the most of this UK-network.

  • 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 Higher Education Institute 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.

The point that I make is that 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:

How would an independent Scottish state maintain the level of research quality excellence currently enjoyed by Scottish Higher Education Institutions as part of the UK?

AND 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.

What the white paper says

Of course the Nationalists would have you believe that all would be well in the event of independence – in this and every other walk of life.

But merely asserting it is not enough. Evidence is required to back up their case.

And when getting involved in the world of academia, evidence is not a nice to have, it’s a prerequisite.

And yet, of course, it was evidence that the White Paper lacked.

We were promised a blueprint for independence, but we didn’t get it.

Instead we got a set of assertions and grand statements: ‘there will be major direct gains in an independent Scotland for Scotland’s universities.’

What we didn’t get was any explanation of how we might achieve these gains.

Instead all we got was a list of the things we have right now in our higher education institutions as part of the UK.

I don’t disagree with what the paper says about positive student surveys. As a graduate of a Scottish University with a sixteen year old son currently contemplating his own possible applications to them, I celebrate that.

I don’t disagree with student mobility initiatives such as Erasmus and Fulbright – I wholeheartedly support them.

Nor do I challenge the fact that this sector helps to drive the Scottish economy and the importance of maintaining a strong research base to ensure that it keeps on doing just that.

But the point is, all of these things are happening already; as part of a constitutional setup that delivers to the people of Scotland the best of both worlds.

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 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.

Independence 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?

Some of them have talked about the ‘international trend’ in research for collaboration between countries.

Let’s take a look at an example.

NordForsk is an organisation under the Nordic Council of Ministers that provides funding for Nordic research cooperation, as well as offering advice and input on Nordic research policy.

So far, so good.

But the bit the Scottish Government are less quick to highlight is that in 2011 the fund amounted to around £13 million – compared to the £307 million secured by Scottish institutions alone from UK-wide Research Councils in 2012-13.

We have excellent academic links with countries across the globe – of course we do.

No-one is suggesting that there would not be collaboration between scientists and researchers in a separate Scotland and their colleagues on the other side of an international border.

But the reality is simple.

Divergence in research frameworks could make the flow of funding, people and knowledge harder.

Domestic collaborations would become international collaborations and would carry larger risks.

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 we in Scotland expect to be treated differently?

Common research

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.

The Scottish Government cannot assert that shared arrangements will be secured. This will all be subject to negotiations.

And as anyone knows who’s ever taken part in negotiations, to get a deal you have to give as well as take.

On top of this - we know they want to do a deal that sees them keep all the bits they like from being part of the UK, whilst giving up the bits they don’t, at break-neck speed. Something has to give.

But it would seem that the Nationalists want to rely on goodwill and generosity from the continuing UK.

They want agreement to share institutions from the UK family that we would have just walked out of.

A family to which we had decided to stop making our contributions.

But at the same time there’s no offer of goodwill the other way.

Take the situation of students from the continuing UK paying fees in an independent Scotland.

The White Paper states the Scottish Government remains committed to free tuition in Scotland.

At question 240 they recognise that students from any EU member state have, and I quote ‘the same rights of access to education as home students. This means EU applicants for entry are considered on the same academic basis as home students and pay the same. This will remain the case with independence.’

And yet the answer to the question will students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland still be charged is a simple ‘yes’.

Mike Russell has nothing to offer the higher education sector in his vision of independence.

Assertions

His White Paper is full of assertions and makes promises he cannot deliver.

That is precisely why he has chosen to distract attention with a synthetic spat around immigration with accusations of xenophobia.

It is the oldest trick in the book that when you have nothing of substance to say you seek to create heat as a substitute for light.

The UK Government has of course taken its own tough decisions on fees in England, and we know well that this is not easy.

But those decisions – like all decisions in government – must be taken in light of affordability, legality and non-discrimination.

Devolution has allowed the Scottish Government to make its own funding decisions within a member state. But as part of the EU an independent Scotland would have to abide by the law and not discriminate against another country.

Let’s just think about this for a second.

We’ve got a Scottish Government here claiming on the one hand that it could charge students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland…

…Whilst on the other hand admitting that if an independent Scotland were a member of the EU it would have to offer free tuition to students from every other EU member state.

What does it say about the good faith that the Scottish Government would go into negotiations with those representing the continuing UK we had just left?

I can see the script now: “We’d like to share the UK pound with you , and we’d still like to have access to the Bank of England – but as for your young people; they will have to pay fees whilst young people from France, Spain and Italy can get into our universities for free.

And can we have a common research area too, please?”

I don’t know about you, but I’m not convinced this is the greatest opening line for a set of negotiations of the sort the Scottish Government envisage with the continuing UK.

Not to mention the fact that it would be illegal under EU law.

First we saw a group of academics query the proposal saying it would run into ‘significant problems with EU law’.

Academics including Professor Hugh Pennington and Professor Peter Holmes.

We were told that there was legal advice. We’ve heard that before of course.

And just as with the legal advice the Scottish Government claimed to have on automatic EU membership, when people like the former Director of Universities Scotland, David Caldwell ask to see it, it goes strangely quiet.

The professor of European Union law at the University of Edinburgh has said that the Scottish Government would face an ‘extremely steep uphill battle’ to convince the EU that charging students from the continuing UK would be legal.

And Paul Beaumont, Professor of European Union and Private International Law at the University of Aberdeen has said there’s a ‘substantial hole’ in the Scottish Government’s plans for funding higher education in Scotland.

But it’s not just academics within Scotland who have voiced concerns.

The spokesman for the European Commissioner for education has confirmed that ‘unequal treatment based on nationality is regarded as discrimination and is prohibited by article 18 of the treaty on the functioning of the EU…’

The former European Commissioner for Education Jan Fiegel put it even more simply:

‘this would be illegal. This would be a breach of the Treaty.’

So now we have a Scottish Government planning to speed through its accession process for the EU

…securing all the favourable terms that the UK has built up over years and decades’ worth of negotiation

…whilst publicly stating that they immediately intend to breach the terms of EU membership which prohibit discrimination between states.

Again, if this weren’t so serious it would be laughable.

International stage

But this is how the Scottish Government would seek to represent Scotland on the international stage – and to think that Mike Russell has the temerity to accuse me of xenophobia.

A state that chooses to pick and choose from the rule book to suit its own ends.

That wants to rely on some kind of ‘social union’ and ‘great friendship’ to get good terms from those that it walks out on, but is unwilling to offer any goodwill in return.

I said at the beginning that higher education and research is an excellent example of how being a part of the UK delivers the best of both worlds.

A thriving network of universities that are delivering opportunities for all, regardless of social background, to improve life chances and enabling students to go on to contribute to the common good.

Graduates – doctors, teachers, scientists amongst them – all delivering benefits to society.

Whilst at the same time we are part of a UK-wide research network supported by a diverse and strong economy.

A network that provides the funding to allow our doctors and scientists go on to be the very best of their professions, exploring and making new discoveries that benefit us all.

The best way to ensure that our sector can continue to perform as it does is to reject independence and stay with a system of higher education that draws on the best of both worlds.

And if you cherish our system of higher education as I do

…if you are proud of the amount of highly rated research that is being undertaken here as I am

…and if like me, you believe in investing in our young people so that they can to make the most of what we have on offer…

You will make the positive choice for Scotland and for higher education, and vote to stay a part of our UK family.