by Carl Pierer
It is a good situation for European students in Scotland. We get to study at excellent universities with outstanding research. We do not pay any tuition fees. The institutions are well funded. As part of the EU, access and living is easy. What more could we wish for?
The campaign against Independence for Scotland usually raises worries that this, our, privileged situation might be put at risk by a yes vote. Leaving the United Kingdom might mean that universities in Scotland will lose access to UK-wide research funds. English, Welsh and Northern Irish students would have the status of European students, probably making it illegal for the universities in Scotland to charge them the fees they charge now. Supporters of Independence retort that they have plans for how to cope with these problems. With both sides presenting disagreeing “evidence” for their cause, it is difficult to estimate which hypothetical promise is more likely to be kept. The argument offering the most economic route wins the battle for plausibility.
However, facts about higher education in an independent Scotland would require Scotland to be independent. The issues at hand, the impossibility of a transnational research fund to name just one, cannot be decided upfront. Therefore, this article is not in the business of arguing for either case. Rather, it sketches a framework for a less economised higher education in an independent Scotland.
Students are a curious segment of the population. They don't pay taxes (unless they work part time), they would prefer not to pay tuition fees and they don't immediately contribute to a country's economy. They study, they educate themselves in hope of a brighter future and the rest of the society supports them in expectation of greater economic output in future. Considering that society invests substantial resources in students, demanding qualified graduates in exchange is only reasonable.
But it is not only in the economic exchange that society draws benefits from this group. Students produce art and literature, they form a politically active, critical mass. To give a couple of examples: Schiller started to work on his phenomenal play “the Robbers” while a medicine student, Bachmann published her first novella in her first year as a philosophy student and students were involved in many political events (the protests in 1968, for instance).
To work in the artistic field, it is essential to be bored. Analysing a Jacobite's interior life, describing the beauty of the morning dew or to compose an Overture for the Hebrides; all this takes time. Time that cannot be spent on improving one's qualifications. Put crudely, reducing the student's spare time puts these functions at risk. A student, who is entangled by all sorts of commitments, say study, society committees and part time work, can hardly afford to engage critically. The expectation for the student to lay the fundament of their future career (e.g. “You should be on this committee, it will look great on your CV”), deprives them of time to spend on creative activities. Of course, one might object that Schiller and Bachmann are individual genii, the amount of spare time permitted by their curriculum is irrelevant to their production of outstanding art. Even if it is assumed that genii can come forth with their art regardless of the circumstances, it does not invalidate the point: Leisure is conducive – if not essential – to art.
Concerning politicised students, it has become evident that students withdrew in great numbers from the active political protest and turned to more private, individual forms of political statements. Instead of obstructing an official visit by the Shah of Iran, students now plant organic onions and use canvas bags (displaying, ironically, a political statement). Quite certainly it would be naïve to attribute the sole reason for the students' lack of political interest to their lack of spare time. Another part is due to the perceived inefficiency of political action. Cynics will hold that more spare time for students will simply mean more spirit time. Yet, it is unlikely that the existing numbers of apolitical or non-creative students will be blown out of proportion by an increase in leisure. Instead it would permit those already active to be more productive.
Taking a positive view on the question of the benefits for higher education in an independent Scotland is tricky. Education is one of the devolved powers, giving the Scottish Parliament the right to determine education policy independently of Westminster. Thus, any positive argument will be read with the question in mind: Why do you need independence for that? A welcome answer is to point at possible threats being part of the UK would entail. However, scaremongering does not further the debate. Instead, it is more promising to depict how an independent Scotland can shape the needed leisure time.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) is committed in its White Paper “Scotland's Future” to preserving the status quo with regard to higher education. The three main topics outlined in the White Paper are international cooperation, tuition fees and the common British research area. The SNP states that international cooperation, in particular within the EU, should be furthered, that Scottish students will continue to have free access to higher education and that Scotland will try to reach a new research agreement with the rest of the UK. This means the degree structure will not be touched upon.
Currently, the Scottish degree system consists of 4 years: two pre-honours, two honours. In pre-honours years, students learn the basics of the subject they are studying. The University of Edinburgh, for example, has to account for a broad range of international backgrounds. Securing that all its students acquire the same level during these years means that students have a reasonable amount of spare time. Studying just one subject will not give all the credits needed in one year, so students have to take outside courses, which may be completely unrelated to their main degree. It offers a broader education and it allows students to switch easily between degrees. Marks obtained during the first two years do not count towards graduation. This takes some pressure off the students' shoulders. These aspects could have a positive effect on student leisure and its resulting creative output.
At the moment, however, this is not exactly the case. Spare time is used to plough the field of a future career: it is spent with additional studying, competitions or part time work. The opportunities of outside courses are mostly used to improve the personal portfolio by studying subjects immediately relevant to the main degree. The low impact of early marks enables students to explore “university life”.
An independent Scotland could set incentives for a less trade-oriented passing of leisure time. In need of a cultural industry of its own, an independent government could invest in associations devoted to the creation of art. In particular, having sovereignty over her finances, Scotland could furthermore secure the availability and increase the funding of resources (publishing companies, magazines and galleries) for the exhibition of locally sourced culture. More prizes and artful scholarships would help students to reconcile study and art. Rewarding artistic achievement, however impossible to judge, could be realised by an independent government.
On the political spectrum, the national voice of students would be heard more easily. More directly affected by decisions taken at Holyrood than at Westminster, students in Scotland could form a more effective, more active and more critical mass. The government could support think tanks, political platforms and facilitate discussions. While this is possible without independence, only a yes vote will make the effects more tangible. An independent government in Scotland would be immediately responsible – in all affairs – to the people living in Scotland. Political action in Scotland would have a direct and local impact. All this would help to make political engagement attractive and less frustrating. Perceiving the immediacy between the government and its people, students would find new enthusiasm for critical opposition.
Europe has been looking up to Scotland for quite some time now: in the 18th century for her Enlightenment, in the 19th century for her writers and her beauty, and today for her outstanding higher education. European students have an interest in a thriving Scotland, in particular in thriving universities. The advantages currently enjoyed cannot in themselves be an argument for the status quo. In contrast, the sketched support of student activities by an independent government provides an alternative outlook. An independent Scotland could offer recognition, possibilities and rewards for artistic creations. There, students would have a say in national, European and global politics. This is what we could hope for.
This article was submitted to the HEPI/Times Higher Education Essay Competition on Scottish Indepence and its effects on higher education.