SCOTLAND’S education system has always been distinct from the rest of the UK, but the future of the country’s schools and universities is still a key issue in the independence debate.
Questions have been raised about tuition fees, research grants, overseas students, teacher recruitment and exam options as the Yes and No campaigns battle it out.
With four universities based in the Capital, Edinburgh has a special interest in what independence might mean for higher education.
Academics have raised concerns about research cash if there was a Yes vote, arguing that Scottish universities currently receive more than their strict share of funding.
Between them, Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt, Napier and Queen Margaret universities earned £107 million in 2012/13 from the seven UK research councils.
The Scottish Government’s independence white paper promises research investment that will enable universities to remain internationally competitive.
And it says Scotland would remain part of a common research area with the rest of the UK. But one higher education expert says universities south of the Border would not sit back and watch an independent Scotland take more than its “fair” share of research grants.
She says: “Universities are big beasts and nowadays they are all businesses with a real interest in growing their income.
“Any sign that research money raised in England was going to be going over the Border to Scotland would provoke a huge lobby by the universities in England to prevent that happening.
“Whether you have a joint structure is neither here nor there. They will not hesitate to grab research funds – and research teams too.”
The SNP has pledged it would continue the policy of free university tuition after independence, but there are questions over whether the fee waiver would have to be extended to students from the rest of the UK.
English, Welsh and Northern Irish students here are currently charged for tuition, though students from other European Union countries are not.
If Scotland becomes independent, EU rules would normally require students from the rest of the UK to be treated the same as other EU students.
But the SNP believes it can put a case for an exception to be made, on the basis that free tuition would be a “huge financial incentive” for students from England to come to study here. The higher education expert says it is a mistake to think cost is the only consideration for people deciding where to go to university and argues that even if Scotland were allowed to charge English students, the next question would be how they were going to pay their fees.
“At the moment, most English students faced with fees bill will take out a loan from the UK Government.
“But most countries do not fund students to study outside their national borders.
“If you live in Newcastle and fancy going to Edinburgh University, you contact Student Finance England and take out a loan. If you live in Newcastle and fancy going to university in Dublin, you won’t get a loan.
“Perhaps they will decide to treat Scotland differently, but it would be a huge shift in policy and it could cause problems. People would start asking why they could not be funded to go and study in Paris or wherever.”
Edinburgh University is known for having a high proportion of students from England and the Capital’s four universities had 8100 students from the rest of the UK in 2012/13.
The expert says: “There will be kids at Edinburgh whose parents would still fund them, but it would be a caricature to think they will all be like that. Many would still be dependent on government funding.”
But she says any withdrawal of financial support by the government in London would not be out of spite. “They would be doing it because these were the rules and making exceptions would have major implications.”
The NUS maintains a strict neutrality on the independence issue, but says regardless of the result, students from the rest of the UK should not have to pay tuition fees.
“Free access to education should not stop at the Border,” says a spokesman. “Whatever the outcome we will work to ensure that access to education is based on potential, not bank balance, for all students, regardless of background.”
The ability of universities to attract overseas students is also an issue in the referendum debate. Universities Scotland, the NUS and the Scottish Government are all critical of the UK Government stance on immigration, which they say sends out the wrong signal.
Universities Scotland say: “The UK Government’s current policy on immigration makes universities uncompetitive in the market for international students and its rhetoric on immigration has been highly damaging.
“In the last couple of years we have seen the number of international students coming to Scotland fall for the first time ever.”
They want international students excluded from the net migration targets and opportunities for students to stay and work in Scotland after completing their courses.
The SNP advocates a more liberal immigration policy and its white paper talks of reversing Westminster decisions in order to attract high-quality overseas students.
The NUS says international students contribute a huge amount to Scotland. “Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, it’s clear they deserve a better deal.”
Like universities, school education is a devolved responsibility, but Alex Wood, former head of Wester Hailes Education Centre and now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University, has highlighted comments by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown hinting that Scotland’s separate system of educational qualifications might be abandoned in favour of a UK-wide approach.
Mr Wood says: “The abandonment of Scotland’s distinct qualifications would signal the end of Scotland’s distinct and broad curricular model.”
Meanwhile, the private education sector – which accounts for one in four pupils in the Capital – could be in line for a boom if there is a Yes vote and an increase in the number of highly paid foreign diplomats and senior civil servants based in the city.
But John Edward, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, says Edinburgh schools do not have a lot of spare places. “We don’t have final figures yet, but initial indications are they’re more or less full to the gunwales.”
Mr Edward says independence might also affect teacher recruitment. “If we became two separate states, presumably there would be mutual recognition of qualifications through the EU. At the moment we are two separate systems, so it might even make it more straightforward.”
He says independence would be unlikely to make any difference to the curriculum private schools follow or the exams their pupils sit.
“Some schools do a mixture of Scottish exams, GCSEs, A-levels and also the International Baccalaureate. The exam boards down south are very keen to export their qualifcations so I would not anticipate any great change.”