Higher education and independence

Higher education is already largely devolved. However, there are many uncertainties for higher education in the independence debate, not least what impact it will have on funding. Universities are a very important part of the Scottish economy and they operate in a global marketplace.

I was speaking today at the ESRC seminar on Higher Education and Independence. I outlined UNISON’s approach to the constitutional debate as set out in our publications, Fairer Scotland and Fairer Scotland – Devolution.

I focused on a number of issues that concern staff working the the sector. In the main they revolve around funding for universities. Important sources of income for Scottish universities come from students from the rest of the UK who at present pay tuition fees at similar levels to those in the other parts of the UK. The Scottish Government claims they will be able to continue to levy these fees, despite EU rules that forbid direct discrimination against other EU countries. This of course assumes that Scotland will be a member of the EU. I don’t doubt that Scotland will be an accession country, the issue is on what terms. The rebate would certainly be lost and that would have an impact on public spending that funds free education.

Not surprisingly this was one of the hot topics at today’s seminar. Mike Russell was not convincing on this point, but he fairly pointed out that Scotland is only in this difficulty because of the marketisation of education in England. On the other hand speakers did point out that marketisation is not absent from Scottish universities in terms of overseas students and loans.

UNISON is a strong supporter of free tuition. However, we have to recognise that it has not improved access to higher education for those from disadvantaged areas. When student support is taken into account, students from disadvantaged backgrounds face similar levels of debt to students in England when they graduate. Universities can do more here, but it is also a reflection of our unequal society.

The other income concern relates to research funding. At present Scotland does proportionately well from the UK research spending allocation. Scotland has 8% of UK GDP, but get 13% of research funding pot. There is also a question mark over UK charities research funding that is equally important to Scottish universities. We should also remember that pressure on research funding globally is not limited to constitutional change. Alastair Carmichael also made some strong points on the benefits of the integrated UK research framework. It is national government’s that fund research, international funding collaborations are not funded on the scale of the UK system.

A plus for Scottish universities from independence may be an immigration policy that reflects Scotland’s needs, rather than the south-east of England. That may enable Scotland to attract even more overseas students on top of the 40,000 who already come here. Alastair Carmichael attempted to rain on that claim at today’s seminar, but in my view not very convincingly. Scottish universities have already suffered from UK policy changes. For example, there has been a halving of students from India.

There are over 21,000 non-academic staff in Scottish universities and large numbers of atypical workers. At present the core pay and conditions are negotiated at UK level, so independence may require a new bargaining structure in Scotland. Nothing new in that for us, but we would be opposed to local bargaining as a replacement. Any view of pay is of course coloured by the current dispute. The 1% offer contrasts unfavourably with the big pay increases senior staff in universities are awarding themselves. If Scottish universities want to be taken seriously about inequality, they should start by addressing pay inequality in their own institutions.

Other workforce issues of concern to our members include the use of zero hours contracts and casualisation; the 14% gender pay gap; and low pay including the Scottish Living Wage. The funding issues above clearly have an impact on how these issues will be addressed if Scotland votes for independence, although there are currently significant reserves and the workforce costs are falling as a percentage of income. Funding hasn’t been a barrier to top staff pay!

University governance has rightly been a focus of recent reports and legislation in Scotland. University leaders try to posit a conflict between good governance and accountability with institutional autonomy. Scottish universities should not be captured by a managerial elite and stronger governance is needed to stop the drift in that direction.

That leaves the issue of pensions. Our members are covered by several pension schemes at present. For those in the LGPS, independence will have little impact as it is already a separate Scottish scheme. For those in the USS there is a concern about having to split the scheme or tackle the deficit immediately due to EU rules. Bigger pension schemes are generally more effective so this would be an issue for a separate scheme even if transitional arrangements could be agreed with the EU over the deficit. Obviously, this is only an issue if Scotland and the UK is in the EU!

This series of seminars funded by ESRC are hugely important to the constitutional debate. They offer one of the few opportunities for objective analysis in the current debate. I would particularly recommend the film the project has made that captures the views of young people. It is very powerful.

HE may be devolved, but that doesn’t mean constitutional change won’t impact on the sector. However, learning is delivered by people not robots. So don’t forget the workers!

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