Brian Monteith: Do research or universities suffer

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Imagine a Scottish city that wishes to build its reputation as a centre for excellence in higher education. It has many universities of international repute, one considered world-class and the others with departments of international standing.

Their excellence comes in two ways – their teaching of students (attracting applications domestically and from around the world, including England, Wales and Northern Ireland) – and research (that can sometimes seem esoteric or may have brilliant and future-changing outcomes).

Teaching is funded by students. Whether domestic or foreign, the city’s students all pay for their tuition fees – either directly out their own (or 
parents’) pockets or via their own governments which pick up the tab.

Research is funded from all sorts of grant-giving bodies that consider university research applications and make decisions about awards. A history of good research helps win more research funding. Success breeds success – but a lack of success makes it harder.

So let’s accept then, for sake of argument, that the four universities in this imaginary city in question are good at attracting students – from wide and far and not just Scotland – and also at winning research grants to discover the unknown or reveal the past.

But these universities are ambitious, they know they if they want to attract more research grants they should apply to Research Councils UK – it’s well resourced, being part of a far bigger country, about ten times the size of Scotland.

But there’s one problem – and it’s a big one. We are in 2016 and Scotland is independent. This fact means the universities are outside the boundaries of Research Councils UK’s grant-giving authority. Any award could, in fact, be an ultra vires payment that would be open to a legal challenge by a competing university from within the United Kingdom. After all, it would be UK taxpayers’ money that the Research Councils would be using and it does not, as a habit, fund research in France, Germany or Ireland – so why would it make an award to a foreign country like Scotland with its own (smaller) resources to call upon?

So that (very) big pot of money that the Research Councils UK disburses would not be available to Scottish universities, including the ones in our imaginary city.

But the limitation on these 
universities’ ambitions is worse than than being unable to access the UK’s research grants – there is also a big problem with income from teaching.

An independent Scotland will be outside the European Union, waiting to get in. And yet it is pledging to break one of the EU’s most fundamental agreements – the idea that universities should charge the same fees to EU students as are charged to “home” students. As the Scottish Government does not charge tuition fees to its own students (it meets the cost itself) it will be expected to waive the tuition fees of EU students (by it meeting their cost). But the Scottish Government says it will charge English, Welsh and Northern Ireland students fees up to £9000 a year, breaking the EU’s rules.

If Scotland wants to be admitted to the EU club, the Scottish Government will have to meet the cost of those student fees or face a membership veto from any one of the 28 member governments. It cannot expect to promise to break the club’s rules and still get in the club.

Worse still, with the four universities being seen by UK students as located in a city that is foreign, without enjoying the social union that comes from being inside the UK, the four universities can expect to attract fewer student applications than they might – irrespective of who pays for their tuition.

So, there we have it, four universities in an imaginary city looking to expand, build their reputations, employ more staff and attract more students – aiming to grow in their achievements and in size – but being outside the UK they will be limited in what they can do. It would be so beneficial if they were able to access Research Councils UK grants and attract those UK students – if only they were inside the UK.

Actually, it’s not a problem, or at least it’s not a problem yet! For the city is Edinburgh, it’s 2014, and together with it’s four universities – Edinburgh, Heriot Watt, Napier and Queen Margaret’s – they are all inside the United Kingdom. They are able to apply for the (very) big pot of research grants and easily attract students from the rest of the UK – who see Scotland as home from home.

Better still, the Scottish universities find that they do disproportionately well in attracting Research Councils UK grants. With 8.5 per cent of the taxpayers in the UK, Scottish universities receive 12 per cent of the grants given out. Of the University of Edinburgh’s research income, an amazing 40 per cent comes from the UK. That’s money it would not be able to access if we imagined Edinburgh to be outside the UK. Imagine the impact on Edinburgh’s reputation as a centre of educational excellence.

This is an example of the positive case for being in the United Kingdom. Scots are able to have a bigger slice of an even bigger cake. Why would we throw that away?