Brian Monteith: Our top universities have nothing to fear

Sir Timothy O'Shea is worried about the impact of Brexit on universities. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Sir Timothy O'Shea is worried about the impact of Brexit on universities. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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There is no mistaking Edinburgh is a university city. The University of Edinburgh opened its doors in 1583 at the instigation of the town council rather than the church. Since then it has been joined by Heriot-Watt in 1966, Edinburgh Napier in 1992 and Queen Margaret in 2007 and the change in the city has, in part, been driven by that expansion.

The number of undergraduates studying in the city and requiring of accommodation has grown exponentially, likewise the teaching, technical and administrative staff. All the services a transient population needs, from grocers, laundries, cafes and bars are kept in business, providing employment for locals and students themselves. The built environment has certainly been shaped by our universities (and not always to the good) and much of it in the Old Town is owned by them.

Liam Fontaine and David Gray celebrate winning the Scottish Cup. Picture: Robert Perry

Liam Fontaine and David Gray celebrate winning the Scottish Cup. Picture: Robert Perry

All of the universities have crafted a name for themselves with the University of Edinburgh, to use its Sunday name, being ranked regularly in the World’s top 20 by the respected QS World University Rankings.

Were our universities to suffer an economic shock then it could indeed hit the city economy hard and there could be reputational damage too. There is no doubt that many people come to Edinburgh firstly to study and then become our best ambassadors for the rest of their lives.

So when Sir Timothy O’Shea, the principal of Edinburgh Uni, to use its colloquial name, starts to sound off to politicians that leaving the European Union will range from bad to catastrophic then we need to be concerned, but we also need to ask why.

Sir Tim was particularly exercised about the effect that changes to free movement of labour could have on the recruitment of teaching staff, and that’s fair enough, for that’s a big responsibility.

But when you go to the website and look up the QS World University Rankings you will see that 11 of the top 20 of them are in the United States. That may not surprise anyone and most of the names will be familiar to readers, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is first, Stanford (second) and Harvard (third). It is not until you get to Cambridge University (fourth) that you find the first European uni, and then Oxford (sixth) University College London (seventh) – before Zurich at eighth and Imperial College London at ninth. Edinburgh Uni, I am pleased to say comes in at an impressive 19th.

In fact what stands out on this list, apart from the fact that more than half are in the United States, is that the next largest group is from the UK, with five. Then there are two each from Switzerland and Singapore.

It is not until you get to number 33 that you find any university from another European union Country, the Ecole Normal Supérieuré in Paris, by which time you will have passed another two British Universities on the way, King’s College London (21st) and the University of Manchester (29th).

Now you don’t have to be an academic to know that it is not easy to get a work permit for the United States. They are jealously guarded and highly prized. We also know that great seats of learning are very important to national economies and that bringing the finest talents from around the world is what can make a university highly attractive and successful. But what the QS league shouts out is that work permits for academic teaching should not be an impediment to success.

Secondly, it would appear that having free movement of labour has not especially been of help to European Union institutions, for if that was the case surely we could have expected many more EU Unis to be in the top 30?

Any imposition of work permits for academics from the EU – which is by no means certain to happen – should not necessarily work against Edinburgh Uni, or any other British institution. Indeed it may provide a perverse incentive that if all international recruits are to be treated equally then only the best will be hired rather than an employer go for someone who, administratively, might have proven the easiest.

Bad to catastrophic? I don’t think so.

So why is my cup double not smiling?

Everyone is meant to have a doppleganger and I think I’ve found mine, only I don’t know who it is, and I’m not sure I want to. My sister, sent me a press cutting I hadn’t seen which was 13 more mugshots of people that the Scottish police wanted to identify in connection with trouble at the Scottish Cup final. I had to squint my eyes, for there at the bottom was a bloke who looked awfully like me without my glasses on – with a bald head and goatee beard.

Had she Photoshoped this cutting? I found the newspaper report and it was genuine enough, so I enlarged it and was glad to notice he had better teeth, a larger beard and smaller ears. Not much of a difference really but enough for me to sigh with relief that I somehow had not ended up on a police file by mistake. After all, I was at that football match, although sitting in the top tier would have required me to don a superhero cape to jump down on to the pitch.

Then again, when I look at the mugshot I suspect it was a Rangers supporter. After all, I had a smile the length of the M8 after we won that Cup, and my Doppelganger looked decidedly upset.

Bins plan gets the brush-off

Great news! Edinburgh City Council has got a 65-point plan to tidy up the city’s streets and get the bins emptied. This includes using more brushes! Maybe the fact the plan required 65 points tells us just how bad they let Edinburgh get in the first place.

Bottom of the class

Tim O’Shea thinks he’s got problems? The SNP came to power promising to write off student debt but since then the value of student debt has doubled and the number of bursaries has fallen by a third. Those SNP education ministers should be ashamed of themselves.