“Ever to excel” is the elegantly ambitious motto of the University of St Andrews, and for 600 years it has excelled indeed. We stand as the top university in Scotland, the third best in the UK, and the 88th* best in the world. This has taken place, for the most part, within the United Kingdom.
Today, the people of Scotland are being given the chance to decide their country’s future. On a national level the topics of debate are well rehearsed: the economy, healthcare, a fairer society. But the role of this newspaper is not to be concerned with oil or the NHS. For us, the question posed by today’s vote is: will St Andrews’ fortunes be better within, or without, the UK?
We have not heard as much about higher education in the independence debate as we would have liked, a longing not helped by the decision of St Andrews and other universities to remain silent. Regardless of whether they fear political repurcussions or sincerely believe in neutrality, the result is regrettable. Informed analysis from our seats of learning would have been a valuable contribution to the debate. Nonetheless, key issues have emerged.
The first is tuition fees. Under the European Union’s equal access laws, member states must treat students from other states the same as their own. Because the Scottish government provides free tuition for Scottish students, so it does for those applying from elsewhere in the EU. Students from the rest of the UK (RUK) can still be charged, however, because of a loophole allowing variation within a country. But if Scotland becomes independent and joins the EU, as the Yes campaign intends, the RUK will be a fully separate member state and the loophole will close.
The Scottish government has argued that it will be able to persuade the EU to maintain the current arrangements, citing concerns about an influx of RUK students taking advantage of free tuition. In the view of this newspaper, that would be impossible: charging fees to citizens of only one nation would be clear discrimination. Besides, not a single case has yet come before the EU courts where a member state has upheld a financial barrier to access.
It is hard to judge exactly how a surge of RUK students would impact St Andrews, but one effect is certain: a sudden and significant loss of income as RUK fees, currently at £9,000 per year, disappeared. This would undoubtedly hit the University hard.
The second key issue is also financial: that of research funding. At the moment, universities receive grants and contracts from UK-wide bodies called research councils. No-one contests that research works best when barriers and borders are removed, and the Yes campaign has proposed that in the event of Scottish independence a “common research area” (CRA) would be set up to mirror the existing system. This newspaper sees no guarantee the RUK would agree to this; why fund foreign research? But even if it did, the CRA would be based on population, which would see Scotland disadvan- taged compared to now: it currently re- ceives 12 per cent of funding compared with its 8.9 per cent share of bodies.
If the existing system is not replaced and research funding falls to an independent Scottish government alone, it is not clear that the current levels could be sustained: an independent Scotland would be a small nation without many of the resources enjoyed by the UK. Such a reduction would be devastating for a research-intensive university like St Andrews. And the extra borders could make it harder for Scottish academics to work with colleagues in the RUK and elsewhere in the world.
Indeed, there is a worry that reduced funding could lead to a “brain drain”, where the best academics may go elsewhere because of an independent Scotland’s financial uncertainties.
These arguments can be, and have been, debated. But if nothing else, we should pay heed to those who know this university best. Dr Brian Lang, a former principal, has spoken of a “slow decline” for St Andrews in the event of independence. Sir Menzies Campbell, the chancellor, has said “legitimate questions” remain. And Louise Richardson, the principal, has warned that the potential loss of funding would be “catastrophic” for St Andrews.
The University of St Andrews is an ambitious institution, and will make the best of whatever happens today. But if it is to continue to grow and succeed for another 600 years – if it really is to excel forever – it will require the support and stability that the UK provides. In the interests of St Andrews and its students, The Saint must vote No.
*This figure is different from that published in the print newspaper, due to new information which was released after the date of printing. This figure is taking from QS World University Rankings 2014/2015.