An academic question

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 29 July 2014

With the referendum just weeks away the future of research funding for Scotland’s universities has become yet another area of dispute between the two campaigns.

On the face of it, leaving the UK funding framework would be a serious problem for Scottish universities.

Figures from a UK Government study show that in 2012-13, Scottish universities won £257m in UK research council grants (excluding research council institutes and infrastructure).

This means that Scotland got 13.1 per cent of the UK total, though it only has 8 per cent of UK Gross Domestic Product (GDP), or 8.4 per cent of the UK population.

As Academics Together’s Hugh Pennington said: “However you measure it, the research universities in Scotland do extremely well from being part of the UK. It is very competitive and we compete and win. So the concern is that in the event of independence that would not continue.”

This though, like almost every other area in the debate, is disputed.

Academics for Yes released their own research to Holyrood last month, demonstrating that taking the funding categories together, Scotland – with 10.9 per cent of academic staff – has received 10.6 per cent of research council expenditure in the last eight years.

Weighed against a 9.2 per cent share of GDP, this leaves a potential funding gap for a Scottish government of just £35m – meaning independence would hardly be a catastrophe.

It is hard to prove which side has the more compelling case, after all, if any two groups are going to have the intellectual clout to massage figures, you would expect it to be academics.

Though that is not to say that the research conducted by Cabbies for Yes is not equally hardhitting.

But if the debate over the effect of independence on university research funding is beginning to sound like every other in the referendum, with two sides stuck in a statistical stalemate, there is at least a refreshingly academic tone to proceedings.

In researching the piece on academic funding, one academic campaigner told Holyrood he was too ‘sleepy’ to speak at the agreed time. Or at any other time that day.

Another sidetracked the planned questions on independence in an attempt to start a discussion about the sociology of interviews.

But perhaps the most refreshing aspect was the candid nature of academic campaigners, with a pro-Union campaigner responding to a question on the UK position on immigration with a frank: “It is daft and changing, it is a no-brainer.”

Why can’t the rest of Better Together and Yes be as open? The question is one for the academics.

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