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Do Scottish universities want a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’ in the referendum on independence?

25 MAR 2014

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Perhaps it’s the calm before the storm but there is little evidence of controversy raging over Scotland‘s forthcoming referendum on independence at Glasgow University. No posters, no leaflets; few, if any, of the chatting groups of students around the venerable stone campus seem to be discussing the consequences of the September vote.

Even Patrick Harkness, a leading light of the Academics Together group campaigning against independence, is cautious about displaying his sentiments. Harkness, a lecturer in space systems engineering, who grew up in a Northern Ireland riven by the Troubles, says: “I feel very strongly about this, but it is not something I want to shove in your face. I have personal experience of how divisive a border can be and the divisiveness of nationalism is one of the things that concerns me.”

Harkness came to Glasgow from Belfast as a postdoc student and now has research funding for his project of building solar sails for spaceships, which can be propelled by the energy in light that strikes them. “My wife is English,” he says. “We want to buy our forever house here and stay, but we’ve had our lives on hold for two years. If Scotland were to become independent, there would be a lot of pressure on us to move south.”

Harkness is concerned a vote for independence would add complexity to securing research funding for his kind of work. “A funding base of 60 million people can afford things that 5 million can’t, no matter how much you tax them. At the moment I work in collaboration with colleagues at English universities and it is very simple: one funding application to one funding body.

“I found the Scottish government white paper slightly chilling,” he adds. “It talked about funding research into Scottish priorities. I don’t think you should be looking at funding science on a nationalist basis.”

Harkness sees little positive in the prospect of independence. “The UK is a leader in supporting science infrastructure and helping people in other countries who need it. I would hate to see the countries of the UK become in need of the sort of help they used to give.”

Donna Heddle, professor of Nordic studies based in Orkney, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, believes independence would strengthen the international profile of Scotland’s universities. “We are not talking about ethnic nationalism here,” she says. “We are talking about civic nationalism, which is very different. It’s about allowing us to govern ourselves.”

Her own institution is and would always be looking to the outside, she says. “We already utilise technologies that allow us to reach beyond the boundaries of our own country. We have research projects all over the world; we have students all over the world; we share PhDs with other universities, such as the University of Western Australia.

“Independence would strengthen what we see as the role of education in creating a more socially just society.”

Both sides of the debate agree that the Scottish university sector is in excellent health. The “Yes” campaigners point out that the academic community in Scotland was worried about devolution; more recently there were fears of a brain drain that would might be created by the introduction of fees in England. The fears were unfounded. For its population size, Scotland has more top-200 universities than anywhere else in the world and secures a disproportionate share of UK research funding: 13%. There is a strong demand for places from other UK students, at least for the ancient universities, and they bring in fees worth £150m a year. There is also a strong demand from overseas students outside the EU, who brought in £330m in fees in 2012, and some Scottish universities have opened satellite campuses abroad.


Read full article: The Guardian