Good for Everyone: The Scottish Model for Higher Education

By Michael Russell –

At the heart of the Scottish Government’s approach to higher education are two core principles. The first is that we invest in education as a societal good. Secondly, we believe that access to education should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.

As a small, learning nation, Scotland values its university sector. Last September, the annual QS rankings again showed three of our universities in the world’s top 100. To put that in context, Scotland has as many universities in the top 100 as Germany, a country with a population more than 15 times our own.

Scotland’s universities excel as both research and teaching establishments. This dual role is indissoluble and crucial to maintaining their competitive position.

In 2012, the European Student’s Union produced a map of how each country had fared since the beginning of the global financial crisis, with regard to government investment in higher education. Scotland was identified as one of the only three countries in Europe to increase spending on the sector.

The Scottish Government spends over £1bn per year on higher education. This direct investment supports students, institutions, and both research and teaching. It is estimated that the annual economic impact of our universities is £6.7bn, with 140,000 jobs supported 1

Translating knowledge into impact is vital for Scotland. The University sector is the third largest sector in our economy. Taking 2011/2012 as an example, Scottish universities attracted £905m in research funding from a variety of sources including Government, businesses, charities and the EU2.

Support for innovation is a key priority. In 2013, we began a six year, £124m programme of investment in new Innovation Centres. The first Innovation Centres were launched in April last year, related to Sensor and Imaging Systems and Stratified Medicine.

The success of research is predicated on excellence, and collaboration is not curtailed by national borders. We recognise the benefits of cross border co-operation and knowledge pooling. For this reason, in an independent Scotland, we want to maintain the ‘common research area’ that the countries in the UK currently operate as. It is clearly in the interests of both Scotland and the rest of the UK to maintain and cultivate this common research area, including shared research councils, access to research facilities and establishments, and rigorous and searching peer review.

No Scottish domiciled undergraduate student has to pay tuition fees to attend university in Scotland. This also applies to students from the EU. In response to imposition of tuition fees of up to £27,000 over the term of a three year degree in other parts of the UK in 2011, the Scottish Government had no option but to enable other universities to require students from the rest of the UK to pay tuition fees to attend Scottish institutions. This step proved necessary to ensure that there are sufficient places available for Scottish domiciled students.

One statistic amply demonstrates the unique nature of our circumstance and the risk we need to address, now and in future. Scottish Government analysis reveals that presently, only 1.5% of students domiciled in England study in Scotland. And they are very welcome. If that total were to rise to 10%, attracted by the prospect of avoiding prohibitive tuition fees, then as many as 80% of existing, funded university places in Scotland could be filled by those students.

Questions have been raised about this policy’s compliance with EU requirements, in the event of Scotland being an independent country within the EU. We believe that it will be possible to establish an ‘objective justification’ for continuation of our current policy. This is not about rationing access to something based on nationality. In our opinion, there are a set of unique issues related to, for example our shared land border and common language that combine to justify our approach.

Maintenance of this policy links directly to our cherished principle of access to higher education being governed by the ability to learn, not pay. With a growing reliance on loans, particularly to pay tuition fees, students in other parts of the UK face the prospect of being burdened with high levels of debt after they leave university.

Scottish domiciled students also have access to student loans to help with living costs. It is right to give learners a choice in how they support themselves during their period of free study. However, the overall student support package offered by the Scottish Government is geared towards providing a mixture of support, through free tuition, bursary and loan, in order that any debt accrued is more sustainable and easier to pay back in the longer term.

The immigration policies being pursued by the UK government are harming higher education in Scotland. There are examples of individuals who cannot come to this country to study, often at a very high level, because of immigration restrictions.

It is essential that Scotland is able to set its own policies on migration and citizenship. Scotland needs to be seen as a welcoming place, open for academic and research business and more than willing to see those of talent staying if they wish to build lives and careers.

In an independent Scotland, we can also bring to bear some parts of our government which presently cannot be engaged in the devolved context. We could design taxation; welfare; and labour market policies aimed at creating a much wealthier and fairer Scotland. That is of particular importance within the early years and our school system. However, it would also have its benefits for further and higher education.

Scottish universities do not operate in a vacuum. Institutions across Europe and elsewhere in the world are no isolated from the economic realities presented to their home countries. However, universities are incubators of talented people and new ideas. Some of these ideas have the potential to revolutionise science and technology. In so doing, they have the potential to generate sustainable economic growth and new employment opportunities at home and elsewhere.

This Scottish Government invests in education as a societal good. In an independent Scotland, I believe we can accelerate achievement at home and increase our international contribution, as a country whose universities excel in teaching and research and extend the hand of welcome to students and academics from across the world.

Michael Russell is Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning in the Scottish Cabinet.

  1. Biggar Economics Report “Economic Impact of Scotland’s Universities 2011/2012″, June 2013.
  2. HESA Finance Plus 2011/2012.

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