This working paper draws on findings from an ESRC-funded project entitled Higher Education in Scotland, the Devolution Settlement and the Referendum on Independence, conducted by researchers at the University of Edinburgh between March 2013 and July 2014. The project is part of the ESRC’s Future of the UK and Scotland Programme, which aims to inform the debate on independence in the run-up to the referendum. Higher education provides an interesting lens through which to explore the impact of devolution and the implications of independence because it involves both reserved and devolved matters. Whilst Scottish universities operate within a UK research area and compete within an international market for staff and students, most decisions on higher education are made by the Scottish Government. There are, however, multiple layers of inter-dependence between the policies of the four nations, with each having the capacity to ‘interfere’ with the policies of the others (Keating, 2005; Parry, 2009). For example, the decision of the Westminster Government to introduce deferred fees of up to £9,000 for UK and EU students studying in England with effect from September 2012, had a profound impact on the policies of the devolved nations. In Scotland, whilst undergraduate education remains free for home and EU students, from 2012 universities were allowed to charge fees of up to £9,000 a year to students living in the rest of the UK (rUK). If higher education were to be provided free of charge to all UK students, it was felt that Scottish students might be squeezed out by an influx of ‘fee refugees’ from England.
The future of Scottish higher education has featured in the referendum debate, with a particular focus on tuition fees and research. The White Paper argues that independence is the only way to ensure that higher education in Scotland remains free of charge to home students. At the same time, the Scottish Government maintains that, post-independence, it would be possible to continue to charge rUK students studying in Scotland. Experts in European law disagree, suggesting that EU institutions are likely to insist that rUK students are treated in the same way as those living in Scotland and the EU. There have also been disagreements about research, with the Scottish Government maintaining that, following a vote for independence, Scotland would remain part of a UK research area, whilst the Westminster Government argues that this would be unlikely, since national governments fund national research programmes.
Drawing on interviews with policy makers at a range of levels, this paper explores perceptions of current Scottish higher education and its future direction of travel, raising questions about the extent of policy convergence or divergence in higher education across the UK (Gallacher and Raffe, 2012). The aim of the interviews was to explore views of key areas of Scottish higher education policy such as funding and widening access, and to make UK and international comparisons. Respondents were also asked to consider future policy scenarios and systemic stability. The paper complements Working Paper 8 which focuses on the views of international academics and those from the rest of the UK, as well as representatives of shared services.