Jim Orr: JK Rowling’s comments welcome

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JK Rowling’s recent contribution to the referendum debate is wholly to be welcomed.

If only more high-profile Scots felt able to do the same then it would greatly help the discussion reach out to ordinary homes across the country. Everyone wants to see an informed debate but unfortunately her comments were overshadowed by the spike in internet activity that she prompted.

One of Rowling’s concerns which is of particular importance to Edinburgh was that an independent Scotland might be unable to sustain our excellent higher and further education sectors or draw on UK-wide Research Councils after independence.

It is a fact that many of Scotland’s universities are world-class institutions. That status depends on the quality of their staff and students, and their level of funding – something that future Scottish governments, of all political stripes, are likely to regard as a top national priority.

Equally important is the need to maintain shared research arrangements with the rest of the UK and build further links with institutions on these islands and overseas. As Professor Paul Boyle of Research Councils UK has stated in evidence to the Scottish Parliament, sustaining these arrangements and relationships would be in everyone’s interests.

After all, English, Welsh and Northern Irish university staff have collaborated with, and worked successfully alongside, Scottish colleagues for decades. As ever, it’s a question of priorities. But independence would give us more control over such decisions, as responsibility for all income and expenditure would lie with an empowered Holyrood.

But there are many more issues we need to consider around higher education. One policy which is already hurting Scottish universities is immigration restrictions which have led to a marked decline in overseas undergraduate and postgraduate numbers across the UK. The principal of Glasgow University recently commented that this made the UK appear “closed for business” to them.

Would English Premiership clubs be as competitive as they are in Europe if they had to cope with harsh restrictions on numbers of foreign players? Of course not. That’s why Westminster made special visa provisions for top footballers. Similarly, control of immigration policy could easily have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament to reflect Scottish priorities and values long ago but Westminster parties have shown no enthusiasm for this even though it could be used to help our economy and society. The one demographic group of immigrants which are most welcomed by all sectors of society is the young and educated (such as students).

Also of concern is the real possibility that the UK could vote to leave the EU following the planned in-out referendum. This would hugely impede the free movement of research talent and funds, and undermine student exchange schemes like Erasmus that have helped generations of students to study (better) together.

But Rowling is to be thanked for expressing her concerns. The impact on the higher education sector must be a big part of the national debate and voters need to hear all the different perspectives.

• Jim Orr is the independent city councillor for Southside/Newington