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Agenda: Only independence will allow our universities to flourish in future

The purpose of universities is the creation and transfer of knowledge and intellectual capital.

This is an international mission that knows no borders. Academics work best in a context where they can draw students, and work with colleagues, from across the world. Scotland-based academics increasingly come from the international family and our students are increasingly international. At the same time, universities must allow access to higher education to students from their own society.

Regardless of the independence referendum vote in September, there will be funding uncertainties but, also, every reason to believe that a Yes vote will create improved and more secure funding. Higher education is one of Scotland's many success stories: our research is among the most highly cited in the worldand our Government ceaselessly promotes it.

We are increasingly concerned at the negative language about the potential of Scotland's science and universities under independence. The SNP Government is committed to universities, seeing them not only as a beacon of international status, with five of our universities in the top 200 worldwide, but also as engines of economic growth and international co-operation.

The creation of innovation centres; funding of postgraduate studentships linked to economic development; and the recent agreement on co-operation in science with Hong Kong are evidence of this. Also, abolition of tuition fees and expansion of funded places linked to widening participation show a commitment to the inheritance of a democratic intellect at odds with the increasingly marketised provision elsewhere in the UK.

The Scottish Government has shown a commitment to Enlightenment ideals of the application of reason to knowledge in a context of material improvement. From evidence-based policy to renewable energy, the role of universities is gaining importance in the creation of a smart, successful and socially just Scotland. It is reasonable to ask those who think independence would be bad for our universities whom they would expect to implement different policies than those prevailing in the rest of the UK. These include: £9000 tuition fees (likely to rise, and unlikely to be reversed by Labour); hostility to overseas students in support of an anti-immigrant agenda that has engendered widespread opposition in higher education; and the prospect of significant cuts in research funding from 2015 but absent from any argument for voting No.

To these policies must be added the risk of withdrawal from the EU and a threat that the whole of UK higher education could be excluded from European research funding.

The White Paper commits a post-independence government to wider research funding on the basis of Scotland's historic funding share, and it is clear the priorities of the Scottish Government for Scotland's economy and international profile can be addressed only by the full engagement of universities. The main threats from the No camp are cuts in the Scottish block grant, loss of access to EU funding and loss of overseas goodwill. Relentless reduction in public spending, current pressures to reduce university support in England even more and privatisation of English universities through fees will lead to reductions through the Barnett formula for public funding in Scotland. Or, worse, abolition of the Barnett formula would have catastrophic effects on higher education expenditure in Scotland, putting pressure on a Scottish Government to re-introduce fees, and fees are what the No parties would support in a UK context.

These outcomes would be disastrous. We remember the many naysayers to devolution's effect on universities before devolution; they were proved wrong then but ask us to believe them now. Yet the principles of Scottish higher education have seldom been under greater threat than from some of the policies of parties in the No camp.

Devolution provided some temporary relief from policies developed elsewhere in the UK; only independence can protect us in future and allow us to flourish.

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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