The UK minister who oversaw a rise in tuition fees tots up the cost of independence for Scottish universities
His nickname is ‘Two Brains’, so it’s appropriate that David Willetts also has two jobs. The UK Universities and Science minister’s portfolio is split along the border, with nationwide responsibility for scientific research, but not the universities in which it is carried out, which are devolved. Willetts’ main political legacy – the trebling of the university tuition fee cap in the rest of the UK – therefore doesn’t extend to Scotland. That hasn’t stopped the minister from weighing into the debate over different models of university finance north and south of the border, telling a fringe audience at last year’s Conservative Party conference in Birmingham: “There is, I know, in some Scottish universities an anxiety as to whether, without fees, they are going to remain properly financed. There will come a point when the students will say: ‘How well equipped are the labs? Where are the internationally mobile academics?’… And that is a challenge for Scotland.”
Asked about his comments, the minister tells Holyrood that he was responding to a question about English universities. However, while stressing that “student finance is a devolved issue” and “a matter for Scotland”, Willetts questions whether free tuition can endure indefinitely. He maintains that the UK Coalition Government’s plan to allow universities to charge tuition fees up to three times higher than the level he inherited from Labour has put institutions “on a sustainable basis” financially. “Is the financing of Scottish higher education on a similarly sustainable basis?” he asks. “When money is tight, and when graduates clearly benefit from going to university, it seems to me reasonable to expect graduates to pay back. If you’re not doing that, it means that you are squeezing other public programmes to pay for higher education. As I say, it’s a Scottish issue but my view is that what we’ve done in England is the right decision for England and has put our university financing on a good long-term basis.”
Coupled with the move to allow universities unlimited recruitment of applicants within certain grade boundaries, some English universities are cashing in on the ability to charge fees by increasing student numbers; others are struggling in an environment of increased competition. The impact of fees on universities may be mixed, but for students, the picture is clear. There were 10 per cent fewer applications to universities in England for the academic year starting in 2012 – the first year in which increased tuition was charged – than 2011. That trend looks likely to persist into the next academic year. Many English students who persisted despite the cost have voted with their feet: the number of students from south of the border studying in Scotland actually increased, despite the fact that some four-year degrees in Scotland are costlier overall than the three-year equivalents down south. “There are lots of flows of students,” says Willetts, “and of course, if they wish to go study in Scotland they should be free to do so.” Applications in the rest of the UK are down, he suggests, because of exaggerated fears about tuition repayments. “There may still be some sort of misapprehension that [students] have to pay up front to go to university in England, which is not the case. Any payback [will be] as graduates when they’re earning more than £21,000 through the tax system. That, I think, is a fair way of financing it.”
The SNP Government in Edinburgh begs to differ. The victims of the tuition-fee hike have served as a belt of scalps to the SNP – a battle standard, and a warning. At his party’s autumn conference in Perth last year, Education Secretary Michael Russell called the missing applicants his “25,000 proofs” that free education was worth defending. Willetts has a warning of his own – independence would add to the cost of Scotland’s university system. “Of course, if Scotland were to go independent, then the regime that already applies to students across the rest of the EU – if Scotland were a member of the EU – would also apply to English students. They would be able, for the first time, to go to Scotland without paying any fees, just like students from Scotland or France.” Russell told the Scottish Parliament in 2012 that free tuition for students from the rest of the UK would cost an independent Scotland £150m – a cost worth paying, he added. “I’m sure that extra financial cost will be allowed for in any calculation that’s done by the SNP,” Willetts adds.
However, £150m for RUK students’ tuition would be just one item on the bill for universities in an independent Scotland, according to Willets. He has responsibility for the UK’s Research Councils, which hand out billions of pounds in funding for scientific research across seven subject areas each year. Scottish universities get £232m from that pot, a roughly 13 per cent share against Scotland’s 8 per cent of UK population. “Scotland actually does very well out of the UK research budget,” Willetts says – but a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum would mean that funding would have to come from elsewhere. “We have cooperative arrangements with different nations, so there would be, I’m sure, various bilateral links between us and Scotland, just as there are with the US or France; but the single funding pot across all of the UK, allocated on the basis of excellence from which Scotland currently does very well – it would be an independent state so it wouldn’t be part of that single funding pot anymore, would it.”
Money wouldn’t be the only loss to the Scottish academy; the system that awards funds based on excellence in which Scotland’s universities outperform their collected UK counterparts would be broken up, Willets suggests, with consequences for how research is organised. “Running a single overall excellence-based system for research funding across the UK works very well for everyone. It enables specialisation to occur. If you broke that up, and if Scotland was no longer accessing that pot, from which it does very well, there’d be immediately the dilemma of whether to try and do lots of things, or try to specialise in a small number of things. I think that would be hard for Scotland to do,” says Willetts. “Ultimately, I think the referendum will be a Scottish decision for the Scottish people – I think it would be hard for Scotland to do as well as it does at the moment, when it’s clearly getting a more than proportionate share of UK research funding.”
Scottish universities would also lose some of the profile they gain from being promoted internationally alongside the rest of the UK sector, in initiatives like the UK’s space programme, Willetts claims. “I’m a great admirer of Clydespace, which is a very enterprising space business outside Glasgow that I visited last year,” he says. “When I’m backing the UK as a whole within the European Space Agency, we can get a good deal for the UK, which in turn benefits Scotland and elsewhere. There is international recognition of the quality of science across the UK, so there’s an endless flow of scientists and outside experts who tend to come via London. I’m sure they would try to engage with Edinburgh as the capital of what would be an independent Scotland, but the fact is at the moment – I’m talking to you from my office in BIS – last week in this office there was John Holdren, the President’s adviser on science, and we were talking about UK links to the US in science. It is an opportunity for Scotland’s interests alongside the rest of the UK to be properly represented at an international level.”