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Wings Over Scotland

The soot-covered cockerel

Posted on October 18, 2013 by

This week, the University and College Union (UCU) have set out their manifesto for higher and further education in anticipation of the independence referendum. It denounces the funding system preferred by the big three Westminster parties and offers full backing to the Scottish Government’s policy of free tuition, while calling for immigration changes in order to support students and academics coming from abroad to study and work in Scotland.


“It is right that students who benefit from higher-than-average incomes should pay something back, but they should do so through progressive income tax,”

“Business depends on graduates and should make a contribution rather than receiving tax breaks. Higher education should be substantially paid for through general taxation.”

“Scotland does not have great concerns about an immigration influx and should relax rules which could lead to greater recruitment of students, though they may be put off by negative perceptions of the UK system.”

While the report doesn’t say so explicitly, these views put the UCU clearly on the Yes side – immigration and taxation would continue to be powers reserved  to Westminster in the event of a No vote, and the prevailing political climate in England (particularly the south) suggests a very different direction of travel.

Likewise, as we’ve noted on this site before, should Scotland vote No the Barnett Formula would force further cuts. As more and more infrastructure is built on PFI/PPP and services are either privatised or funded through direct billing of the public in England, then less public money is spent by the UK government on services, leading to an equivalent drop in the Scottish block grant.

(Assuming, of course, that the Barnett Formula survived a No vote – something that now looks highly unlikely with senior Scottish figures in all three London parties voicing their opposition to it. Without it the situation would be considerably more severe, and the return of tuition fees would be inevitable.)

What we’re going to look at in more detail today, though, is the intriguing request from the UCU for clarity on research funding in the event of independence.

“Continued and sustainable research funding is vitally important to Scottish higher education, and universities need to know whether funding will be provided on a cross-border basis in the event of independence, or via a separate Scottish body.”

One of the (many) scare stories to come out of the No campaign is that Scotland’s universities would be cut out of funding for science and higher education research currently received from UK funding bodies, thereby seeing a drastic drop in revenue.

UK Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts has said that an independent Scotland would need to find over £220m worth of funding for academic research to replace support it would lose from the UK’s seven research councils.

“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… 

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.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Blair McDougall, “Better Together” campaign director:

“Research is an example where being part of the UK helps Scots to excel in something we are naturally good at. Indeed our universities are driven on to be the best because of the UK competition.

For centuries Scotland has produced British geniuses. As a part of the UK research system we can continue to teach, to innovate, to find new cures and to pioneer new technologies.”

The implication of the words is clear – that Scotland’s success is not a result of the work of clever Scots, but dependent on being part of the UK. But it seems odd to assume that funding for scientific breakthroughs would be allocated based on geography rather than expertise.

To fail to award grants based on the ability to achieve the best results would be akin to giving your local chemist a grant to research cancer based on the fact that they are just down the road, rather than give the same funding to a world-wide centre of excellence for cancer research on the other side of the border. It doesn’t matter how much money you throw at something if the team you have isn’t geared up for the research or doesn’t possess the relevant expertise.


Within the UK, funding for research is based on a “dual support” system, described below by Rick Rylance (the Chair of Research Councils UK) in his submission to the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s ‘Enlightening the Constitutional Debate – Science and Higher Education’ project.

“Research Councils UK (RCUK) is, as the name suggests, a UK-wide organisation. Its seven autonomous Councils distribute grants and awards to recognised Research Organisations (ROs). These comprise UK universities, but also research institutes (which are sometimes wholly or partially-owned by individual Research Councils), and some independent bodies, such as major museums, known as Independent Research Organisations or IROs. 

The grants are awarded on the basis of open competition and decided through peer review by appropriate expert researchers on a project-specific basis. They are thus not allocated on the basis of location, either geographic or political.

The distribution that arises does so naturally as a function of quality. By and large, ROs located in Scotland achieve success at a rate and to an extent that is above what one might notionally think of as an even distribution across the UK. This recognises the distinctive excellence of Scottish research.”

Clearly therefore, Scotland would continue to be able to apply for and benefit from grants given by these seven autonomous councils based on the “distinctive excellence of Scottish research”. But what’s the second pillar of the “dual support” system?

“The other part – so-called QR (Quality of Research) money – is distributed as outcomes of the UK-wide exercise currently called the Research Excellent Framework (REF) conducted on behalf of the funding bodies of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales by HEFCE. There is thus commonality of standards. But each of the separate UK administrations decides the nature and volume of the awards it makes through annual block grants to individual HEIs on the basis of their achievements in REF.” 

At present, the additional funding for research comes out of the devolved administration budget. Upon independence, Scotland would continue to fund these projects as it does now. The only difference is that the additional funding for research would come directly from the Scottish exchequer instead of the block grant.

“Alongside this, additional funding is distributed through charities, learned societies, national academies and other UK-wide bodies (such as the Technology Strategy Board and UK Space Agency). A few of these – for example the Royal Society of Edinburgh – are location specific, but most are not. The principles of award however remain the same and are grounded in recognised excellence.”

The view that Scottish Universities could continue to receive UK funding for research was further supported by Professor Sir Ian Diamond, principal of Aberdeen University, and former chairman of the Research Councils UK executive group.

When asked to report on the issue for the Scottish Government ahead of its white paper on independence, he said there was a precedent for single research areas that crossed national boundaries and that Scotland could remain part of Research Councils UK should Scots vote Yes in next year’s referendum.

“There’s no question – if that was what was wanted. I can’t see it’s in the interests of anyone in the rest of the UK to want to exclude Scotland, nor is it in the interest of Scotland to be excluded from collaboration.

You need to freely and easily be able to collaborate across the UK. Knowledge does not know state boundaries. It seems to me it could be done fairly straightforwardly. 

It does require a will on both sides of what would then be a national divide. It would be one of very many negotiations that would be needed to be had.” 

So it would seem that the threat of massive budget cuts to research is, like so many of the No camp’s claims, entirely without foundation in reality, and based solely on taking cynical advantage of the fact that normal folk don’t know how the current system works. We’d like to be able to say we were surprised.

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  1. 25 05 14 17:08

    Academic funding | Are We Really Better Together?

  2. 31 08 14 04:44

    48 Lies | A Wilderness of Peace

47 to “The soot-covered cockerel”

  1. Tony Little says:

    Rev.  just to play the devil’s advocate here, but following Independence, would it not fall to the new Scottish government to be the principle funder of these types of grant, and is it beyond our ken to see a new rUK government simply changing the rules to omit Scotland from their list of acceptable “countries”?  Some precedence does exist for cross-border support, but a continuation surely depends on the rUK being willing to stay the course.
    If austerity bites even harder in rUK, would it not also be conceivable that these research grants would be hit?  I have complete faith and confidence in those bodies in iScotland to win grant support from ANY organisation worldwide that offers this opportunity, but am sceptical at the level that an rUK could maintain, and consequently whether iScotland would remain in a position to apply.
    OK, maybe too pessimistic, but I do not see the benefit to rUK to have a generous grant programme when they will have MAJOR economic difficulties to contend with.  

  2. Scott Minto (Aka Sneekyboy) says:

    @Tony Little
    I would ecpect that the Scottish government would negotiate to stay within the current system and provide funds to it also – the placing of grants is based on expertise and that works both ways.
    Scotland could negotiate to contribute to a shared research program, while maintaining its own priorities from the funding that it provides directly. It would essentially be maintaining the current set-up but allowing the flexibility to set goals deemed important by the Scottish government for some of the research undertaken
    But you are right of course, the rUK government may choose to alter the rules, and that continuation of the systems above depends upon whether or not Westminster wishes to be belligerent in its dealings with a newly independent Scotland, or if it intends to work against its own interests by cutting off access to Scottish expertise.  
    All in all though, the bulk of funding comes from the scottish government already, as well as charity and business.
    The UK funding aspect accounts for about a sixth – so even there a Scottish government could look to protect that funding as strategically important to Scotland.

  3. Scott Minto (Aka Sneekyboy) says:

    @Tony Little
    An interesting point you raise though s that in Austerity UK, science and research funding is being curtailed and therefore the future of research funding may well end up being better served by severing ties and gaining support from a more positive Scottish Government that takes a pro-active approach.
    It makes sense for the Scottish Government to offer more support to R&D to not only support the educational rankings (and hence attractiveness of scottish institutions), but also to provide spin offs to the wider economy in order to deversify and create jobs.

  4. Scott Minto (Aka Sneekyboy) says:

    Correction in post 1: “and if it intends to work against its own interests”

  5. Murray McCallum says:

    I would think membership of bodies like the Russell Group (“The Russell Group is a member organisation”) would continue for Glasgow and Edinburgh.
    Russell Group state that in 2011/12, the 24 Russell Group universities accounted for 73% (over £3.3 billion) of UK universities’ research grant and contract income.

  6. Tony Little says:

    Hi Scott.  I also think that a new SG would be more supportive of R&D.  Maybe a useful bi-product of the oil funds would be such an approach.   I was also unaware of the percentage that the UK system provides, so at about a sixth, am certain that a newly independent SG can afford to completely support its own R&D institutions.

  7. gordoz says:

    Great work Scott –

    Scottish research tradition as you say is not new but both historic and indeed ground breaking in significant areas, (always has been).

    Research is research, Business is business  and Quality is quality.

    Money is attracted towards all of the above and in terms of ‘research’ money, investment will gravitate towards interesting, usefull, innovative research that leads to valid business or ground breaking discovery outcomes – no matter the locale.

    This article hits on the key point of research horizons, it is folly to insist that without the UK we Scotland would fail. Its the UK that is failing and dragging Scotland down.

    Our horizons in the new Scotland of our children and grandchildren must be aspirational and global, we must look way beyond Brown & Darling’s shipwrecked economy that is the UK, (which has long since ceased to be a major player in world markets; it just hasn’t realised the world has moved on yet). New partners await in Europe, South America and Asia.

    What is ‘good business’ and ‘makes money’, has done in the past and will continue to do so. When a new opportunistic ‘Forward Looking’ Scottish state, conscious of its resources and educational heritage emerges, this will be an attractive alternative option for International investment, (the good will is there).

    To suggest otherwise is purley scarmongering, (but this is what we have come to excpect).

    Suspect a ‘fear factor’ in reverse for RoUK ?

  8. Bobby Mckail says:

    ‘Grants are based on the basis of open competition’ ‘Not allocated on the basis of location either geographically or politically’ Thanks for that info Scott brilliant, as ever.

  9. Rev. Stuart Campbell says:

    “Guess I emailed you this link too late to be useful.”

    Not at all, still just trying to compress the info down to something manageable. It’s over 10,000 words.

  10. Gayle says:

    Blair McDougall shows his racist side yet again. Not only does he assume that any achievements are down to the British state rather than the hard work of individuals from Scotland but by his reckoning every other nationality that studies in Scotland and achieves excellence is irrelevant and therefore completely ignored as its only “British” geniuses that Scotland produces. Think it is time to bring back the dunce’s cap and stool.

  11. Tony Little says:

    Hi Scott – apologies just realised that you wrote the column! (embarrassed smiley)

  12. Alba4Eva says:

    All we need to understand is one simple thing… the vast majority of funding for R&D (like over 95% globally) is from private interests.  How many times do you hear “In association with such and such University” or “in conjunction with such and such company!” …R&D is done by and large for profit.   Petrochemical, Pharmasutical (Sp. Probably).  etc.
    Scottish ingenuity and expertise, our education system and R&D base can only benefit from Global recognition of excellence from being identified as Scottish rather than British.  

  13. Oldnat says:

    Re Barnett
    Quite amazing to see Mags Curran tweeting this “Salmond asks Scots to trust him then continues to mislead. Barnett serves Scotland well, he is the only one threatening to break it.”

    When she’s one of the ones wanting to abolish it (as any principled Unionist actually should!)

  14. Clarinda says:

    Couldn’t agree more with your critical perspective on another smoke and mirrors No case illusion.

    Last night I heard Mr Brewer making a silly attempt to accuse the as yet unheard full speech of Nicola Sturgeon where she is assumed to be rebutting many of the self-proclaimed NO case scaremongering Project Fear as “Project McFear”.  The ‘truth telling cockerel’ would be left sootily undisturbed if placed in NO case HQ. 

    Logic, reason and educated rationale do little to alter the thinking and action of those who have learned to or blindly insist on the status quo which they are prepared to tolerate rather than invest their energy in positive change.  It can take some courage to change from an embedded position where acceptance of having believed in previous ideas etc. almost incriminates the person and therefore frequently results in entrenched positions despite the integrity of the better idea.  It is perhaps reassuring that so many people are taking an undecided position and may yet be very confident in ending up with sooty hands.

  15. James Morton says:

    Once again the dependence as boon argument rears its ugly little head again. Much, much more of this nonsense to follow. I am going to have my mind bleached at some point, the sheer wretched negativity of it is making me increasingly short tempered.

  16. muttley79 says:

    Margaret Curran is an absolute disgrace.  She never gets pulled up by the media for her lies as well.  The same is true of Jackie Baillie.  Baillie is as shameless as they come.  These careerists are repulsive. 

  17. Rev. Stuart Campbell says:

    “Quite amazing to see Mags Curran tweeting this”

    Oi! Quit pre-empting my lunchtime posts!

  18. sneddon says:

    Research is life blood of any society.  Apparently we’re very good at it except if we were independent!??  Perhaps the BT campaign need to go and do some…er research. 🙂
    I’ll be here all week folks! 🙂

  19. GP Walrus says:

    As an academic, I’d first point out that the argument over how we fund universities is no different from how we fund any activity. Like any other rich industrialised country, Scotland is perfectly capable of funding its own research entirely in the areas where it already has expertise or in building strength where it is needed. Of course we can also make mutually-beneficial agreements where necessary with other countries and we already have a well-established research council set up across the UK which (broadly-speaking) works well. There is no reason to imagine that need change if it continues to work for us. We also participate in EU funding across all member states, so having a central body disbursing research funds across allied nations is not a new concept. (Parenthetically, being a separate state from rUK would help a little in building EU funding consortia).

    The key points are made by UCU: funding for education through progressive taxation and a more rational immigration policy. These would be enormously beneficial and I agree with the analysis here that they are only likely to come about through independence.

  20. Hetty says:

    My son was quite angry the other day as a young couple he knows are intending to vote ‘no’, their reasons? The girl says she’s ‘English’, number one, and number 2, she doesn’t want to have to ‘get a new passpor’, and 3,’ they will allow loads of paki’s in, we like indians but not paki’s’. I was shocked to hear this from someone so young, ie early 20’s. Very sad indeed not only due to the racism, but also the fact they can’t be bothered to think for themselves even when we post lots of info on facebook for them to see!

    It’s crucial that University education is open to all who choose it, not just the privileged, tuition fees will be enforced in Scotland with a ‘no’ vote for sure.

  21. Ivan McKee says:

    In the context of the oft repeat BT claim that an Indy Scotland wouldn’t benefit from the opportunity to compete for a share of the £3bn UK research Grant funding
    See link to Horizon 2020 the EU’s EUR70bn 6 year Research Grant Funding program.

    This isn’t my area of expertise but if scale and opportunity to compete for big funds is so critical in the research arena then surely the EU fund is far more critical to be involved in than the UK one ?
    If on the other hand its just a question of replacing the current UK funding to Scottish institutions from the SGs funds then the difference between our 9.9% tax take share of current UK Research Council spend and what we currently receive isn’t a big number in the context of the £4.4bn additional funds available to an Indy Scotland overall.
    Competing for funds in a UK context also cuts both ways. SG funding for research in an Indy Scotland could be secured and reliable, whereas in the current UK context you need to compete for funds across the whole UK  so the share coming to Scotland  could be higher or lower.

  22. Andrew Morton says:

    O/T as usual but just watching BBC News at One and we go over to Laura Vickers at the SNP conference who tells us that the SNP are going to forego their ‘Braveheart’ rhetoric in future.

    Can someone start a Braveheart register so that we can monitor all uses of the word on the media?

  23. sneddon says:

    Hetty – will your son’s friends even bother to go to vote? I’ve heard similar attitudes usually from non voters.  I bet your son could win money playing cards with those ‘brains of britain’.

  24. faolie says:

    I’d guess that this is one area where rUK might say that they’re not going to play anymore since Scotland wouldn’t be part of the UK. Does the council fund any Irish universities for instance? However, if we were to participate in financing the body, I don’t see why it couldn’t continue in a spirit of co-operation, instead of London taking its ball away in a huff.
    It’s rather like Derek Bateman’s description of the day after a Yes vote and the bit about London and the FO being desperate to keep up the image that, hey, so Scotland’s voted for independence, but really, apart from that, what’s changed?

  25. tartanfever says:

    Vronsky – thanks for that link. Quite extraordinary stuff in that report. I had no idea just how complicated university funding is. The most remarkable assertion for me is the idea that when the govt says ‘ we want to make education a level playing field’ – which the public believes to mean that all people from all backgrounds should be able to go to university actually means that private universities, funded by big business and working on a ‘for-profit’ basis should have all educational restrictions removed and be able to operate as our public universities do.
    Of course, the ultimate reality surely is this. At present, fees for universities down south are paid for by the government in guaranteed loans, the students start paying back those fees when the start earning over £21k (?)
    However, as there is a distinct lack of jobs for graduates, the numbers actually earning enough money to start repaying those loans is fairly low. This means a poor return for the govt. Ultimately the govt. will be forced to ask for fees to be paid ‘up front’ as very little of the previous years loans are being paid off.
    Then we will see a dramatic tail off in the numbers applying for uni. Applications haven’t fallen off too much just now because people still believe that they will get a job after studying and they’ll worry about paying off a loan at a later date.
    Think about it, you start a uni degree course, full of confidence about your own ability and take out those loans and build up debt because you know you really won’t have to start paying it off for 4/5 years at the minimum, and even then a £21k a year salary is a load of money to a youngster thats never worked before, they don’t have the life experience to know just how quickly the money goes.

  26. Scott Minto (Aka Sneekyboy) says:

    @ Tony Little
    “I was also unaware of the percentage that the UK system provides, so at about a sixth, am certain that a newly independent SG can afford to completely support its own R&D institutions.”
    It may actually be even less than a 6th as for the 2011-2012 academic year the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) gave colleges and universities a share of an overall research budget of £1.5bn (£528m to colleges and £956m to Universities).
    We also know that UK MP David Willets said Scotland would lose out to the tune of £220m per year from UK funding (equivalent to 14.6% of the funding given by the Scottish Government – or a 12.8% cut in the total budget) – but it isn’t clear if that £220m includes the funding from UK Charities and Business.

  27. Oneironaut says:

    Reminds me of a photograph I saw somewhere online of some graffiti scrawled on a wall that read:
    “What if the cure for cancer was trapped inside the mind of someone who couldn’t afford an education?”

  28. Scott Minto (Aka Sneekyboy) says:

    @Ivan McKee
    Thank you Ivan. I was going to put up about the Horizon 2020 program, but my understanding is that its an £80bn fund.
    Clearly therefore, we need to ensure that scottish institutions get the backing they need to lobby for these funds by having a Scottish Government looking out for Scottish interests as an EU member state

  29. kininvie says:

    Ivan and I had a discussion on this subject a month or two back while I was trying to find part of the missing positive case (what happened to Captain Caveman’s effort, I wonder?). I put forward the proposition that we’d do better as part of ‘big’ nation with a larger pool of funds, but Ivan countered by showing that in terms of Nobel prizes per head of population, large countries do no better than small ones, while in terms of patents granted per head (using 2008 figures, before the European patent office), the UK came out well behind Switzerland, Finland, Sweden & Denmark.
    So even if we lose access to Research Council funding, there’s no evidence to suggest we wouldn’t be perfectly capable of holding our own, and nothing that really suggests we would be any worse off

  30. gedboy says:

    can i get some funding to develop a new diet programme the last one (bubbles )was a big hit  
    i now need funds to develop flavoured steam any takers 

  31. kendomacaroonbar says:

    @ Gedboy
    It’s already been patented, along with Liquid Ice.

  32. gedboy says:

    aha but was it coloured steam with stripes

  33. kendomacaroonbar says:

    Stripes, naw..Pipes, aye 🙂

  34. gedboy says:

    do you want in 
    bring you,re  own kettle and colours

  35. kendomacaroonbar says:

    I’m currently seeking funding for an iDevice that can remove stones from ‘orses ‘ooves, but fear I need to obtain said funding before Independence otherwise I’ll be stymied. That’s what my red coat pal told me.

  36. Edward says:

    Just watching the SNP party conference
    BBC just cant help themselves as there are a lot of sound drop offs
    Nicola sturgeon on the stage and missed the start, due to the BBC having ‘sound problems’

  37. sneddon says:

     we can learn from these guys about getting research funds.  Just ask the winners of the IGNoble award.  So funny I nearly passed my exams!
    Also the creeping ‘profitisation’ of higher education is just another example of public funds being transferred to the private sector such as the provision of health, probation and social work services by the private sector.  The private sector can’t make anymore money selling stuff to each other so they have to take tax payers money to make money (as was ever thus the cynic in me says)  Soon to come pay as go primary schools!

  38. velofello says:

    Thanks a bunch Rev., your going to compress the Stefan Collini article forwarded by Vronsky after I’ve ploughed through all 10,000 words.
     I don’t believe that it is in the interest, nor probably the inclination of academics, to play the borders post game so beloved of UK politicians.
    Substantial piece of work Scott 

  39. Quick the suns oot says:

    Cross border cooperation would continue just like it does at the moment between researchers in Scotland and just about every other country in the world. Science is without borders and who funds it wouldn’t change that.
    I would be in favour of a Scottish research body, better independent! Current funding to the research UK council is always at risk. See link below on RSC website for a take on the ring-fencing of the current science budget. (Cut substantially and the definition of ‘science budget’ altered to allow more things to be cut).

  40. Gallowglass says:

    Here is PCS tentatively getting started on this;

    It will report again next year after a conference on the matter.
    I will be attending as an observer.

  41. Thomas Dunlop says:

    It should also be mentioned that currently the UK underfunds R&D compared to high tech leading countries- Isreal, Japan, South Korea Sweden & Finland all spend > 3 % GDP on Research & development- where as the UK manages only 1.7%. So in one respect tieing ourselves to the UK is bad for Science & technology
    However, in this respect Scotland, at the moment, is doing well, by attracting a bigger share of the research budget than on a population basis. Therefore its effective GDP percentage spend on R & D is higher. Saying that, current UK restrictions to budget and persons from outside europe will diminish this competitive edge in the future.
    Therefore, the challenge of independent Scotland is to boost the levels of funding to 3 % plus level to facilitate technology driven growth. Another very important aspect its the ability to attract talent from round the globe, this is in part what makes Scottish universities so vibrant places (compared to Finland where they are ethnically uniform places). I think the SNP realise this by promoting immigration to Scotland and an end to restrictions on skilled workers

  42. Ken500 says:

    Research funding is given worldwide.

  43. Ken500 says:

    The 40million Scottish diasporia could encourage funding, along with foreign students connections.

  44. GP Walrus says:

    As a country Scotland puts in more than it’s fair share of tax revenue. Therefore as an independent country, Scotland can spend on research. Given the value we place on dedication, and having 5 universities in the world top 200, it is very likely that our research funding will be the same or better in iScotland. The SNP government has protected those parts of university funding it controls while in office.

  45. Iain More says:

    Do we really want to be propping up educational elitism in what will be an authoritarian rump UK made up of an UKIP/Tory Govt? Indeed would educational cooperation be even possible with such a dictatorship?

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