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Back to school for Scotland’s universities


The Scottish pro-independence campaign has made a great play of the country's global reputation as a center for learning and research.

Scotland's cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning, Michael Russell, stressed Scottish research delivers "world beating results" with five universities in the world's Top 200, "unmatched by any other country per head of population". But could going it alone hit Scotland's global standing?

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Scottish research under threat?

The Yes campaign's manifesto promises higher government investments, adding that the country also "consistently punches above its weight in the proportion of competitive research funds won."

But figures released by the U.K. Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in November 2013 show that the Scottish Funding Council provided only 30 percent of its universities' research income in the 2011-12 academic year. The remaining 70 percent came from the U.K., research grants, charities, Europe and businesses.

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Scotland has been very successful in attracting U.K funding, securing 13.1 percent of The U.K. Research Councils total funding in 2012-2013. But in the event of a Yes vote, "it would be up to an independent Scotland to fund any partners from Scottish institutions" as the U.K. Research Councils would only operate in what was left of the U.K and would only fund Scottish projects if partnered with British institutions.

Furthermore, access to existing U.K. research facilities and infrastructure could become more restricted, states the report, adding that businesses and research charities could also face additional administrative burdens making cross-border projects "more complex".

While funding from the European Union is less than from U.K. bodies, totalling an average of $108.5 million a year between 2007 and 2013, it could also come under pressure as Scotland's automatic membership in the union is uncertain.

But struggling to obtain funding could be the least of the sector's worries as fears of a funding clampdown has sparked talks of a "brain drain".

Senior research scientists have already been approached by English universities and some candidates are delaying taking up positions in Scottish universities until after the referendum, according to the U.K.'s The Guardian newspaper. Other academics have already warned that they would be looking to leave Scotland in the event of a Yes vote.

This could have a big reputational impact as it would make it more difficult for Scottish universities to attract the best researchers and access world-class facilities.

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Overall, the majority of higher education staff – 54.8 percent – will vote No in the referendum, according to a Times Higher Education poll conducted on over 1,000 Scottish universities' staff.

And although 30.2 percent of them believe independence would be best for Scottish universities, 55.5 percent state that staying in the U.K would be best for research.

The tuition fees debate

Contrary to the rest of the U.K.- where university students pay up to $9,000 ($14,500) - higher education in Scotland is free up until doctorate level and the Yes campaign has been quick to point out that the system would continue, stating on its website that "independence will not have any immediate impact on the issue".

However, it steers clear of promising free tuition fees in the medium to long-term, adding that "whether or not Scotland continues with the policy of free tuition will depend on who is elected to form the Scottish Government at the elections scheduled for May 2016."

Furthermore, although EU students are able to enjoy Scotland's universities for free, students from the rest of the U.K. – England, Wales and Northern Ireland – are not, paying the same amount they would if they had attended one of their domestic universities, up to $14,500 a year.

The Scottish government has already stated that post-independence, the practice would continue.

But in a recent research note focusing on the implications of Scottish independence on education, law consultancy firm DWF stressed that many EU law commentators have concluded that it is unlikely that the EU would allow an independent Scotland to continue to charge U.K. students, arguing that U.K. students should be treated as other EU students.

Niam Nic Shuibhne, professor of European Union law at the University of Edinburgh is quoted in the DWF's research saying that "the Scottish government would face an extremely steep uphill battle to convince EU institutions that it should be entitled to retain a practice involving systemic direct discrimination against one particular cohort of EU citizens".

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