I have always felt exceptionally proud and lucky to have grown up and gone to school in Orkney. My teachers were creative, dedicated and hugely influential in my life. The great education I received on the Island, prepared me well for what I and many others did, and continue to do, upon leaving school: go to one of Scotland’s world-class Universities.
I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family, but it didn’t matter. I was able to benefit from free tuition, a student loan and travel expenses to come back to Orkney at holidays. These things make a big difference to whether you can fulfil your dream of going to university. You don’t have the luxury of living at home and commuting to uni in Glasgow, like many of my fellow students did, when you come from Orkney.
The impact upon universities, and the students going to them, has been a big part of the referendum debate and rightly so. Scotland has a long and proud history of providing first class education. It is important for those who receive it, as well as for our wider society and economy, that this continues.
Nobody believes that if Scotland was to leave the United Kingdom then our universities would shut and no students would get a degree ever again. But that doesn’t mean independence wouldn’t have an impact on higher education.
Scotland’s universities are consistently ranked among the best in the world. They contribute to research, creativity, invention, innovation and discovery and these Scottish institutions receive 13% of UK Research Council funding, about 5% higher than our population share of the UK. This higher level of funding allows our universities to achieve excellence in the fields of science, medicine and others. Being part of the larger UK, allows Scottish Universities to excel, to grow and to give back. The Principal of St Andrews University, Professor Louise Richardson, has warned that losing this funding would be “catastrophic” and could cause a talent drain among academics.
The prestige of our Universities throughout the world allows them to attract thousands of foreign students every year. They add experience and culture to our campuses and lecture halls; create friendships that transcend borders and, importantly, they pay fees – huge fees. In fact they contribute more than £336 million per year. And this cash is essential to University budgets. And this brings us to the second major problem for education in a separate Scotland: it would be illegal to charge rUK students tuition fees while Scots get them for free.
I am a qualified solicitor and as part of my degree I studied European law for three years and I remember what I learned.
The idea that an independent Scotland could maintain free tuition fees for Scots and discriminate against students from rUK by charging them is a non-starter. But don’t take my word for it. The former Director of Universities Scotland, experts in EU law, including Aidan O’Neill QC and even the European Commission say it would be illegal. As former SNP deputy leader, Jim Sillars said “English Students will be legally entitled to what a Polish student gets, which is free fees.”
So there it is, free tuition for Scots in an independent Scotland, means free tuition for those from rUK too. Just over 5000 students from rUK started courses at Scottish universities last year. Under the current system, they require to pay. The loss of this funding would have a huge impact, resulting in vastly reduced services unless the Government of the day made up the shortfall from an already stretched public purse. And with rUK tuition fees increasing, who could blame students from other parts of the Union for looking to Scottish universities for free places, with an inevitable squeeze for Scottish students.
In reality, the most likely result would be that instead of everybody getting free tuition, nobody would. What impact that would have had on my ability to go to university, I cannot say. What impact that might have on future generations? Who knows? But it is worthy of consideration.
Alex Salmond recently said that if he had to pick one thing that he was most proud of from his time in office (which was not related to the constitution) it would be “the restoration of free higher education to the people of Scotland”. The irony that the First Minister’s lifelong ambition of independence could very feasibly end what he sees as one of his highest achievements, should not be lost on anyone.