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Taking education to a higher plane

On the face of it, Scotland benefits greatly from being part of a UK-wide system for funding scientific research.

In 2012-13, Scottish universities secured £257 million in grant funding from UK research councils, around 13.1% of the cash on offer, although Scotland has 8.4% of the population.

Scottish higher education institutions punch above their weight, with five universities ranked among the 200 best in the world and research scoring highly in terms of citations.

The question is whether and how that situation might continue after the independence referendum. Despite claims that it is unusual or even rare for government-backed funding agencies to pledge research money outwith their own borders, there is no guarantee the relative funding success of Scottish higher education institutions would continue if they remain within the UK.

With further austerity measures and cuts to come from the Coalition Government, the prospects are arguably concerning. Meanwhile, just because Scottish universities are successful in winning funding now does not mean they always will be.

But the question of the future of higher education in the event of a Yes vote is a valid one. Some leading academics feel Scotland would lose out, with the rest of the UK unlikely to fund research north of the Border, while any future Scottish funding council would be unable to afford to fund "big science" work on a larger scale. Others argue an independent Scotland could flourish economically by taking better advantage of its strong research base. International collaboration is increasingly common and there is no reason to think Scotland would suddenly be shut out of such arrangements, they claim.

It might be expected that UK funders would still choose to fund the best research prospects, regardless of geography. The Scottish Government's position (that it will negotiate a continuation of cross-border funding) is tacitly supported by the UK's research councils which support continuing a strong shared research system.

This is another area where much would depend on such negotiations after a Yes vote. Pro-Union academics also warn UK charities might pull out of Scotland, leading to a major loss of income. But is this true? Would medical research charities not continue to fund the very best research available, regardless of where it is carried out?

It should be possible for Scottish universities to make the case for much of their funding on the basis that any breakthroughs are likely to have benefits beyond Scottish borders. The outcome of the negotiations which would follow independence is not predictable or guaranteed. But the status quo does not guarantee protection for Scottish universities either. As has been the case with much of the independence debate, the degree of certainty expressed by both sides is of limited value.

It would be refreshing to see positive proposals for strengthening Scottish research, and its commercialisation, from both sides, rather than scare-mongering and dogma that cannot readily be proved or disproved.

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