Some thoughts on the Scottish Affairs Committee report on the impact on higher education, research and tuition fees

0
511

By Bryan D MacGregor and Murray Pittock
 
When a Committee of Westminster populated by the parties of the Union produces a report entitled ‘Referendum on Separation for Scotland: the impact on higher education, research and tuition fees’, the starting assumption of a reader should not be of an objective, evidence-based analysis. 

By Bryan D MacGregor and Murray Pittock
 
When a Committee of Westminster populated by the parties of the Union produces a report entitled ‘Referendum on Separation for Scotland: the impact on higher education, research and tuition fees’, the starting assumption of a reader should not be of an objective, evidence-based analysis. 

From that perspective the summary of this report does not surprise, although a careful reading of the full report reveals that the material from which its conclusions were drawn is often more circumspect.  Its findings are presented under five headings, although the full report presents its material in a different order).

Research Councils

We find out in the summary (paragraph 6) that ‘The UK Government has made it clear that a separate Scotland would not be part of the UK Research Council structure.’ 

Such a statement goes against the commitment to sharing knowledge and co-operating in its production that is central to the notion of a university.  Why would the residual UK not want to collaborate with quality universities?   Scottish universities are renowned internationally, with five in the world’s top 200 and, because of their excellence, are winning competitive research funds from the Research Councils at a rate of 50% above the UK average.

The Scottish Government’s preferred option is for Scotland to subscribe to a shared Research Councils UK (RCUK) budget on the basis of a formula linked to a combination of population and historic grant capture share (depending on the Research Council).   Professor Paul Boyle of RCUK told MSPs (Scotsman, 27 March 2014) that ‘he hoped the cross-Border network would continue’ and that ‘the body “strongly supported” the idea of Scotland remaining part of it.’ 

The same article notes that ‘Prof Sir Ian Diamond, principal of Aberdeen University and a former chairman of the RCUK executive group, has said there is “no question” Scotland could remain part of the existing network after independence.’

There also remains the option of setting up of a separate Scottish research council.   In such an event, it is more than likely that there would be increasing numbers of shared initiatives (as currently with RCUK and other states’ research councils), so that shared RCUK policy and practice is a likely outcome even if shared budgets are refused, which makes it unlikely that they will be.

Elsewhere, research funding pooling occurs in many ways.   There is a European Research Council which funds research across the EU and, on a smaller scale, Norway, Sweden and Denmark do not need an overarching state called Scandinavia to enable research co-operation.   And then there are international collaborations such as CERN.   But we are asked to accept that a residual UK government will not co-operate if Scotland dares to vote Yes.

In any event, Scotland would co-operate with the rest of the world, would co-operate with the residual UK through the European Research Council (assuming the rUK remains a member of the EU) and a Scottish government would continue its strong support of universities. 

On the other hand, if we vote No, we know that there will significant challenges for research funding.  The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) noted that ‘the cumulative erosion of the ringfenced science budget will be over £1.1bn from the beginning of SR10 period up to 15/16.’   And CaSE Director, Dr Sarah Main, said that ‘The last four years of a flat cash science budget is biting scientists and engineers and squeezing universities. 

It is also in danger of putting off R&D companies looking to invest in the UK for whom government investment in research is a potent attractor.’  CaSE also notes that the proportion of GDP spent on R&D in the UK in 2012 was 1.72%.  But ‘the UK languishes towards the bottom of the G8 and well below the EU-28 average of 2.08%’.  (http://sciencecampaign.org.uk/?p=13867#more-13867). 

One commentator points to the effect on other higher education funding in England, arguing that the ‘impact on the overall picture looks very bleak for Higher Education … HEFCE will have just £4,091 million to allocate in 2014/15 …  That’s a cut in cash terms of an eye-watering 18.4%.  The scale of the cuts makes it even more likely that if they continue there will be very little money available for HEFCE to allocate as a result of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework’.  https://telescoper.wordpress.com/tag/bis/

The Scottish Affairs Committee naturally does not consider these issues nor the impact of the 2015-20 austerity spending plans on likely RCUK and other HE budgets within the context of the UK.   And the Labour Party is likely to match current Coalition spending plans should it win the 2015 General Election.

Tuition fees

The web summary of the report states that ‘Evidence to the Committee shows that the Scottish Government’s proposals to discriminate against students from the rest of the UK would not be legally sustainable in the event of separation and eventual accession to the EU.’   Note the emphatic use of ‘would’ rather than ‘might’. 

Elsewhere in the evidence in the main body of the report we discover (paragraph 49) that ‘Legal advice sought by Universities Scotland provides a potential way forward for the Scottish Government.  It notes that the Scottish Government could use a maintenance grant based on residency requirements to offset fees charged to Scottish students’ – this is the current position in Ireland.

So the worst outcome that the Committee appears to suggest is that a Scottish government would have to charge fees but could compensate Scottish resident students by paying them a maintenance award.

We can contrast that with the risks of a No vote.  In England, further increases in fees may come after the next Westminster election.   The Guardian reported that Danny Alexander ‘has said the party cannot rule out raising tuition fees higher than £9,000-a-year after the next election’ and Nick Hillman, who had worked on the fees policy with David Willetts, had ‘called for action to address the “big funding gap” looming in the universities sector caused by mistakes in the government’s modelling and the fact that graduates are earning less than expected.’ (http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/apr/11/danny-alexander-tuition-fees-may-rise).  So, a No vote would mean cuts in public spending through the Barnett formula.  And these are likely to be compounded with unfavourable changes in funding for Scotland through abolition of, or amendment to, the Barnett Formula.

Academic co-operation

We are told that the rUK might not co-operate with an independent Scotland as it would be ‘intent on discriminating against UK students’.  What this ignores it that the Scottish Government is proposing simply to maintain the current system of fees without any change.   Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish students all pay much less at their home countries’ universities than does a student from any of the other UK home countries.  And, of course, international (that is, non EU) students typically pay much more than EU students.  This does not prevent international co-operation in research, which leads nicely to the next of the Committee’s ‘concerns’.

Global networking

The report tells us that ‘Scotland’s universities and researchers would lose access to the United Kingdom’s Science and Innovation Network (SIN) based in British Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates around the world.   This network is key to enabling the Scottish research community access to sources of international funding and expertise.’ 

Note again, ‘would lose’ rather than ‘might lose’.   No suggestion that these facilities are the common assets of the greatest union in world history; no awareness that, according to The Guardian (24 September 2012), the UK and Canada ‘will start “co-locating” embassies and sharing consular services’. 

William Hague is quoted in the same article as saying that ‘We are first cousins.  So it is natural that we look to link up our embassies with Canada’s in places where that suits both countries.  It will give us a bigger reach abroad for our businesses and people for less cost.’ 

The article also notes that ‘The UK also shares several premises with France and Germany.’ 
Scotland would, of course, have its own embassies but we are asked to accept that the rUK, which willingly co-operates with its ‘first cousins’ in Canada and with its more distant relatives in mainland Europe, would not do so with its sibling Scots.

Also overlooked, seem to be the comments of Professor Raffe of the University of Edinburgh and Alastair Sim from Universities Scotland (paragraph 8) ‘that, despite its excellence, the Scottish higher education and research sector was not as visible internationally as it could be because it was perceived as being part of the overall UK brand’.

Some might consider that to be a problem.  Alastair Sim is cited as suggesting ‘that Scotland could create its own strong brand but, “there might be challenges in establishing that separate brand […] you would have to be imaginative and put the money in.”’.   That might reasonably be seen as a huge opportunity given the existing problem that the Scottish higher education and research sector is ‘not as visible internationally as it could be’.

Immigration

The final issue is immigration.   The report states that ‘The Committee recognises the attraction of achieving a degree of flexibility on immigration which Separation may offer and believe the United Kingdom Government should clarify whether any such gains could be made available within the existing immigration system.’   And it notes that Alastair Sim from Universities Scotland (paragraph 12) ‘explained the UK’s “offer” to overseas students was not as attractive as it could be when compared to its main competitors, for example, the United States, Canada and Australia.   He cited the example of entitlements, such as being able to stay on post-study for a work period or bringing your spouse with you when you are doing a one-year master’s degree, as being an important part of the package in attracting students’. 

More recently, the Science and Technology Select Committee of the House of Lords produced a report which noted that ‘The number of international STEM students choosing to study in the UK has fallen over recent years (by 8% in 2011/12 and a further 2% in 2012/13) and the total number across all disciplines fell by 1% in 2012/13. … the evidence we received … suggested that changes to the immigration rules may well be deterring students from choosing to study in the UK.’  (http://epc.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/2014-HoL-International-STEM-students-Report-FINAL-EMBARGOED.pdf)

A reasonable summary of this section of the Commons’ report might be that the Scottish Government’s proposals are better than the existing UK policies, and it would be nice if the UK could change its immigration policies.  But let us not pretend that these changes, which would in the interests of all UK universities, will occur.  Current Coalition policy is to reduce net migration to ‘tens of thousands’ rather than ‘hundreds of thousands’. 

Electoral pressure from UKIP in England will ensure no change, and it is clear from recent criticism by the Labour Party of Tory failure to meet advertised immigration targets that it will be difficult for any incoming Labour Government to move away from this position.

Conclusion

Overall, one has to admire the doggedness of the Committee in its efforts to make the most of the bad material it has had to use but its conclusions are not supported by the limited evidence presented.   On a lighter note, the Committee chair, Mr Ian Davidson MP, claims that ‘The Scottish Government’s fantasies and assertions have now run into the brick wall of reality.’  And he goes on to say that ‘Higher education and research is one of the policy areas where the divergence between the fantasies and assertions of the Scottish Government and the nature of reality is at its starkest.’

And with that we move from silk purses and sows’ ears to hyperbole and fiction.